Pharmacy students serve and learn on medical mission trip to Guatemala

The 6-year-old Guatemalan boy barely said a word, shyly clinging to his mother as his father talked with volunteers at the traveling clinic in La Felicidad.

The strain of the father’s voice could have been attributed to the family’s journey to the tiny schoolhouse-turned-medical center in sweltering 100-degree heat. However, several of the American volunteers quickly learned it was something much more serious.

Tenzin Jangchup, a fourth-year NDSU professional pharmacy student from Brooklyn Park, Minn., reviewed the boy’s diagnosis. Terminal leukemia.

Jangchup’s heart dropped.

NDSU Pharmacy students made a mission trip to Guatemala this summer.

“It was really hard because you hear the parents’ desperation for any kind of help they could get for the boy because there was no other treatment left,” said Jangchup, who was in Guatemala this summer as part of a medical mission trip with fellow fourth-year pharmacy classmates Shalynn Jeske and Jill Tebbe. “The worst part of it all was knowing that we couldn’t do more for him. We knew all we could do was put him in all of our prayers and go on. He touched our hearts.”

It was a tough experience that brought many in the clinic to tears. However, it highlighted all of the reasons for making the journey.

It was a mission to help, to learn about a culture almost 3,000 miles from Fargo, to gain work experience and to come away better people. It was a mission to give back.

“We learned so much more from the people over there than we were able to give,” Jangchup said. “To me, it was so much more beneficial for us to go over there and learn from them than it was for them benefitting from us being there.”

The medical mission trip to Guatemala, sponsored by the Episcopal Dioceses of North Dakota, has existed for 10 years. The mission sends dentists, dental assistants, pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners, medical doctors and linguists from across the United States and Canada to Guatemala for 10 days each summer to help local residents in various locations near the city of Xela. Three pharmacy students and three nursing students from NDSU made the trip last month.

It was the first time on the mission trip for Jangchup, Jeske and Tebbe. Students were selected after essays and final interviews about their desire and motivation for participating in the project.

The College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Sciences collaborated prior to the trip to package and label about 600 pounds of medications and vitamins. After presentations to faculty, students and other members of the team about what they expected to encounter, the students travelled to Antigua in July.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” said Jeske, from Jamestown, N.D. “It was a bit of a culture shock, seeing everyone and meeting everyone right away. Once we got going it was really fun.”

The team set up a new clinic each day at a different community within about a three-hour drive of their home base in Xela. The stops included Chuatuj, a small village, and San Marcos, a city of about 45,000 that endured a deadly massive earthquake in 2012.

The clinics had long lines of mostly women and children waiting when the team arrived. Guatemala has a national health care system, but many in the country’s rural areas don’t see a doctor regularly due to their proximity to hospitals and medical professionals. Elizabeth Skoy, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, said males largely didn’t participate in the mission clinics because they did not want to lose a day’s pay. Skoy also participated in the mission trip.

The pharmacy students overcame the language barrier with the help of translators. Even with a good base of Spanish-language knowledge, the students found it hard to understand many of their patients, Jeske said. Sometimes two interpreters were needed to translate a variation of a Mayan dialect into Spanish before relaying information back to the students in English.

The most pervasive problems the students encountered were gastrointestinal issues, due to the lack of clean water. Jangchup, Jeske and Tebbe handed out deworming medication and vitamins to everyone who came into the clinics.

The students often used donated toys to coax children into taking the medication. At times, they were able to witness doctors and students from many of the other disciplines in action, giving them a better understanding of each field.

“We definitely developed a lot of adaptability on this trip,” said Tebbe, from Eden Prairie, Minn. “A lot of times we didn’t know where we were going, where we were going to set up or how things were going to run. We had to be flexible. It was a really great learning experience.”

Each of the students said she was struck by the sense of community and positive attitude of the people in Guatemala.

Neighbors looked after each other and trusted one another.

A meeting with a man in a wheelchair on the final day of the trip summed up the soul of the Guatemalan people, Jeske said.

“He had been attacked by a gang and was paralyzed from the waist down,” she said, fighting back tears. “But it didn’t effect him at all. He had a really great attitude. That was a common theme in Guatemala. They appreciated what they had.”

The pharmacy students filled more than 6,000 prescriptions and helped hundreds of patients in Guatemala.

The experience has each of them thinking about a return trip to Guatemala. For Jangchup, Jeske and Tebbe, the mission has just begun.

“All of us on the mission trip came for one goal,” Jangchup said. “That was to serve and to learn from the people of Guatemala. It didn’t matter where we came from or what our background was. We would do whatever we could to serve the patients over there.”

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