Global health issues drive students around the world
On a campus of 40,000 undergraduates, a student organization can provide a grounding point. For the members of Frontiers International Health Society, it’s also a launch pad, sending students far beyond the lecture halls to apply their skills around the globe.
“We’re an organization that aims to increase awareness on campus and in the community about global health issues,” said Sarah Eid, a junior from Plainfield, Ill., studying kinesiology and the president of Frontiers. “We look at different countries and see what they’re doing there. We focus on trying to see what we can do, as university students, to help others.”
The 21 UI students spent 17 days in Ghana with four hosts to serve and gain experience. | Submitted photo
Over winter break, 21 Frontiers members went to Ghana, to serve and gain experience in health care. They volunteered at Korle Bu, the premiere teaching hospital in the capitol city of Accra, and one of the best treatment centers in western Africa. They also traveled to nearby villages to offer blood pressure checks and other medical services.
At the hospital, the multidisciplinary team divided up according to interest and experience. The team members assisted in the emergency room, pediatric center, maternity ward, physical therapy unit and the hospital’s laboratory.
Edward Cay, a senior from Lincolnwood, Ill., double-majoring in psychology and molecular and cellular biology, worked with trauma victims in the hospital’s accident center, an experience he hopes to apply to future medical service.
“I’m a licensed EMT, so it was really cool to see differences between the ER here and the ER there,” Cay said. “It was really nice to help out when it was needed, and to see the differences in health care and how they would do things. They have to be very practical and efficient.”
The team members learned the value of flexibility and creativity with limited resources, such as using cardboard strips as splints or taking medical histories with pen and paper.
“We rely heavily on technology, and they rely heavily on improvisation,” said Anuoluwopo Osideko, a freshman from Flossmoor, Ill., who worked in the pediatric emergency ward. “It was a different outlook there, because their health care system is completely different from ours.”
The students also learned the value of communication between the patient and the care provider, since without monitoring equipment or advanced imaging a patient’s account of their symptoms provides crucial clues to their condition. Effective education and fear-allaying build trust, so that patients will be more accepting of treatment and more diligent in maintaining their health.
“This experience helped me learn to communicate with people of different cultures, different languages, different religions,” said Kristyn Mueller, a senior in community health from Morton, Ill. “My goal is to become a physician’s assistant, so I want to work directly with patients and develop relationships with them. Communication is vital to any successful relationship.”
The team members also encountered conditions they had studied in their course work but had never seen in a patient. Malaria, tuberculosis and severe sickle-cell anemia are rare in the United States, but were among the most common ailments the students saw at Korle Bu. The team also visited a leper colony.
“I really want to make the most of my education now,” said Regina Kim, a senior in community health from Suwanee, Ga. “What I’m studying is exactly related to what I experienced in Ghana. It made it really tangible. The textbooks came alive in front of me. It gave me a greater sense of urgency, too.”
That sense of urgency and universal need stuck with Cay as well. One day during his shift in the accident center, a young victim was brought in after being struck by a car. She was stable on admission, but her condition deteriorated while in the hospital. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, she died of her injuries.
“The doctor told me, ‘Next time you come here, bring a ventilator. We may have been able to save her.’ That moved me,” Cay said. “Going to Ghana has definitely inspired me to pursue more opportunities for service abroad. I want to connect more with the world and explore new frontiers. It gives me more confidence in approaching patients or people in need, that I do have the ability to help them – with the right training. ”
In addition to their clinical duties, the students experienced the culture and history of Ghana during their 17-day trip. Spicy food and harrowing traffic were part of the daily routine, but weekend exploration gave the students opportunities for experiencing more of the region, including dancing, a royal coronation and swimming in the ocean. The team walked through the rainforest canopy in Kakum National Park, then walked in the footsteps of slaves bound for the U.S. and Europe at Cape Coast Castle.
However, one of the most startling – and memorable – lessons in local customs met the students on the road. En route from the hospital to their host home one evening, the driver suddenly swerved and pulled the large van to the side of the road. He got out for a moment and returned triumphantly carrying a prize to bring home to his family: a freshly killed squirrel.
“He was so excited,” Kim recalls. “He held it up to show everyone. His face was just ecstatic. Fresh meat!”
The students returned to start a new semester with tans, souvenirs, resume experience and hundreds of digital photos. Their time abroad forged an even greater connection to the UI campus, thanks to a tight-knit community of 21 friends and a newfound appreciation for how their studies could equip them for service beyond graduation.
“I feel like it’s made me more well-rounded,” said Nicole Druktenis, a junior from Highwood, Ill., studying interdisciplinary health and planning to pursue a career in physical therapy. “You learn so much, not just about health care, but about culture and people. It’s a really, really good learning experience.”
For Osideko, the trip cemented her vision and career path. The previously undecided freshman declared a major of community health because of her involvement with Frontiers.
“This trip was really a stepping stone,” Osideko said. “Being at this type of prestigious university, I can now utilize the resources that I have here and find other things that I can do to benefit somebody else. It made me see that my life is not just at the University of Illinois, it’s beyond.