Global Medical Training
By Benjamin Hong
Welcome to Central America. Population: 43 million.
This relatively small strip of land, with its miles of scenic coastline and lush rain forest, is unfortunately also one of the poorest areas in the world. Boasting 202,000 square miles of rich tropical real estate and 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity, many households are still left to scrape through on $2 a day or less, with nearly half of its population living in poverty.
Its third-world economy — primarily hinged upon agricultural exports, foreign investment and tourism — has managed to stay competitive by paying lower wages than those abroad, which effectively reduces the cost of labor and production, but not without consequence. While the rest of the world is drawn toward the white beaches of Belize or the fertile, productive soils of Nicaragua, those of the native working class are left to toil in the fields, subject to long hours, illness and frequent injury without the availability of affordable health care, let alone the money to support their families. Useable water is rationed by the week, clean produce is a luxury they must usually go without and children are left to play in the festering mud, consequently spawning a multitude of ailments among the rural population that are then too expensive to cure.
As students in the temperate bubble of Southern California, it is sometimes difficult to truly grasp the grim realities of such places, let alone to believe that one could possibly do anything about it. Especially as an undergrad — at a stage in your education when preparation seems to be far more important than applied action, memorization more so than execution — it is easy to be discouraged by the illusion of your own seeming incompetence. Fortunately, there is a club that thinks otherwise.
Welcome to Global Medical Training. Population: I’m not really sure.
GMT is a non-profit organization founded in 2003 by Dr. Wil Johnson, M.D., who had for 38 years dedicated himself to private practice in the rural United States before deciding to volunteer his time and expertise fulltime in philanthropy. His vision was to create a program capable of teaching and delivering medical assistance to the impoverished citizens of Central America, while also providing a unique opportunity to inspire and change the lives of those participants. And that is exactly what he did.
Through the affiliated chapter on campus, students here at UCI are not only able to make the journey over to various Central American countries but also to directly help improve the basic qualities of life — like good health and proper hygiene — that the poor are often forced to overlook or simply live without. Free clinics are set up and maintained through GMT donations and support, facilitating the medical needs of the underprivileged men, women and children in the region. Visiting UCI undergrads, trained prior to arrival and supervised by on-site physicians, are then given the opportunity to examine, diagnose and prescribe medicine for the patients that show up at these locations.
“We make sure this experience is unforgettable,” explains current GMT president Peter Kuon. “Our main purpose is to offer students of all majors a truly inspiring and motivational volunteer experience that will expand their understanding of health care and life in third-world countries. As of now, we are currently sponsoring a paralyzed stab victim named Wilbur from Nicaragua by funding his transportation to the hospitals during the weekdays for physical therapy. We are also supporting a free medical clinic called Share Ourselves to aid their goals of providing basic health, nutritional and dental care to vulnerable local populations.”
Regrettably, the problems that plague the underprivileged of Central America do not stop with medical attention and financial assistance, which are more cures for the symptoms, rather than that of the greater illness, so to speak. The source of their misfortune extends much deeper, down to the fundamentals of health education and awareness.
As recent Panama “tripper” Kristine Quach recalls, “many of the people that came to see us had very basic conditions that were easily preventable. Most cases consisted of things like parasites, scabies and the common cold but with symptoms extending for much longer than they normally should. They contract conditions like these because they are unaware of even the most basic hygienic practices, like boiling their water before they drink or keeping children from eating with muddy fingers. By educating the patients on healthier practices in addition to providing short-term medication, we are not only treating their current illnesses but also preventing those in the future.”
But what makes a club like Global Medical Training truly unique is the fact that it is just as much about the students as it is about those that they are set out to help. While it may appear like the exchange is more one-sided, in reality the benefits are actually quite mutual. While the citizens of Central America are rid of their ailments and instructed in the potentially life-saving practices of personal hygiene, the students of UCI are also receiving a life-altering, heart-warming experience.
As current vice president Agam Amin put it best, “Helping the needy in Central America has been a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing the happiness and joy come from a child’s face after speaking to them and helping them is something no book can teach you. It is something that not just all pre-health majors but all college students in general should take part in at some point during their time here.”
And perhaps they should.