Anteaters Head to Nicaragua

Courtesy of Crystal Tran-Nguyen

The scene was certainly a bizarre one.

Twenty-nine undergrads and alumni from the temperate suburbs of Southern California, clad in a full spectrum of medical scrubs, packed into a rundown church in the middle of the Nicaraguan jungle. Wood rotting, paint peeling, chickens and stray dogs running around in the dirt street. A crowd of local villagers — men, women, and children alike — are waiting outside the timeworn doorframe as they are called, one by one, into the makeshift clinic.

The pre-meds, in their ever-changing teams of three or four, sit conversing with their patients either through a translator or, for the more linguistically adept, directly en Español — taking vitals, examining symptoms and confirming their diagnoses with one of the floating doctors. The pre-pharms are busy behind their crude counter of collapsible tables, sifting through tubs of medication and quickly filling the waves of incoming prescriptions.

And in their own partitioned area stand the pre-dents, hunched over, beaming their headlamps into gaping, sometimes screaming mouths — filling cavities, cleaning, grinding and extracting teeth.

This may be a surreal scenario for some, but for a Global Medical Training (GMT) participant, this is just an average day at the clinic.

Twice a year, Global Medical Training at UC Irvine organizes a trip to an underprivileged, Third World country, bringing undergraduates and alumni (who we call “trippers”) to the rural outskirts of the world to provide free health care for those that cannot afford medication, food and clean water.

What we see there is often hard to believe. Nothing can really prepare you for a trip like that, deep into the undeveloped corner of the world. Granted, you see these images all the time, whether in the movies or on TV — and to be honest, what you see is not far from the truth. Dirt roads, sheet metal huts, smoldering piles of burning trash — it’s all there.

Yet, seeing something on a screen and seeing it up close in person are, as you’ll realize, two entirely different things.

“Living in a First World country, we can’t really comprehend what it’s really like to live in a place like that,” GMT secretary and two-time tripper Kristine Quach said.

“We can assume and draw from what we see in the media, but that only goes so far. You have to actually be there. You have to feel the dirt under your shoes. You have to smell the manure and garbage in the air. You have to talk to the people and see their homes. Only then, do you really get a taste of what they have to go through.”

To put it into perspective, nearly 80 percent of families in Nicaragua are forced to live on less than $2 a day. Even full time M.D.’s earn a mere $300 a month for their life-saving work. On our clinical trip this summer to the outskirts of Managua and Granada, we were able to witness firsthand the effects of such poverty. We would get children with severe malnourishment and parasite infections due to their unsanitary living conditions. Men and women would often show signs of severe arthritis and high blood pressure from so many years of hard labor and poor diet.

These trips are designed to provide undergraduate students with an uncensored, eye-opening experience of what life is truly like in the lesser-privileged portions of the world. Trippers return from the eight-day mission with a far deeper understanding of the global community and a solemn realization of the rampant suffering that occurs on a daily basis in places outside of the privileged bubble we call SoCal.

I was fortunate enough to partake in the most recent GMT trip to Nicaragua this past summer, with 29 of the greatest travel companions anyone could ever ask for, and I can honestly say without a doubt that not a single one of us will ever forget what we encountered during our time there. And after spending so much time together, taking the 12-hour clinic shifts together and sweating buckets together — it was no surprise that we became such a tight-knit family in the process.

Words cannot aptly describe how significantly this GMT trip has changed and moved me as a person. My desire to enter the health care profession has never been stronger. The friendships that were forged and the memories that were made will undoubtedly remain with me for the rest of my life.

“I sincerely hope that all those that have not gone on a trip yet find it within themselves to take the chance to come experience it for yourself,” current GMT President and two-time tripper Therese Nguyen said.

“Because no matter how eloquently and passionately I describe it, no amount of words will come close to doing it justice. Do whatever it takes. Save up every cent you can, turn in that application and just go, because it will truly, truly, truly change your life. I guarantee that.”