MISSION: International Outreach – Project HEAL

On the last day of clinic in Tumbaco, Ecuador, Liliana Bustamante was working with an obstetrician and learning the maternity exam when she met a 16-year-old girl, six months pregnant with her first child.

For the girl, the experience of seeing a doctor meant as much to her as being examined.

“She was so excited, it was the first time she had seen a doctor during her pregnancy,” said Bustamante, a second-year medical student at UF.

This spring break, Bustamante and second-year medical student Aaron Kline, led a group of mostly medical students on UF’s Project Health Extension And Learning trip to Ecuador. They provided primary health care to over 1,200 people in remote villages.

“This is my last spring break, so I’m milking it,” she said.

Project HEAL works in partnership with the University of San Francisco de Quito and has branches for the colleges of dentistry and veterinary medicine, as well as the College of Medicine.

This year 20 people traveled to Ecuador, including 13 medical students in their first, second or third year. The group also took three pharmacy students, a physician’s assistant, an undergraduate, an oral surgeon and an attending from UF College of Medicine in Jacksonville.

“I’m excited about learning from my peers,” Kline said. “We’re all at different levels.”

The group set up clinics in villages where doctor’s visits are rare with the intent to help with ailments such as parasites, acid reflux, and general pains, said Bustamante.

Since a lot of their treatment is short term, the group will refer people to a local health department, Kline said. Also, taking an oral surgeon allows them to perform tooth extractions.

“It is a great thing we can do for people and it makes an immediate and long-term impact,” Kline said.
It also created a great learning experience for the students.

“I got to do a couple of extractions,” said Sam Davis, a first-year medical student at UF. “It was cool because as a medical student that is something I won’t get to do again.”

Project HEAL also had a public health focus, which first-year medical student Wilmer Moreno hopes to expand as a co-coordinator for next year’s trip.

“We taught them how to brush their teeth, wash their hands and boil water,” Bustamante said. “And that’s the stuff that will last.”

Besides gaining medical knowledge, the group was also exposed to the language and culture of Ecuador.

Not all students who went were bilingual, but participants were given a Spanish medical handbook based on last year’s trip. The total immersion meant everyone improved, Davis said.

For the first couple of nights, the group stayed with various families. They woke up and helped the families with chores before setting up for clinic, said Bustamante, and the families fed them.

She said that the families went out of their way to make them comfortable, her ‘mom’ even bought instant coffee, which was a big deal for them.

The families also put on a culture night for the group where they were shown traditional games and dances, Davis said.

Traveling to different villages meant the group explored a lot of diverse landscape, from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Rainforest, Bustamante said.

“It was amazing, within a couple of hours the landscape completely changed,” Bustamante said of the bus ride.

One of the most important things to the students was the feeling they got from the Ecuadorians.

“I thought they were going to be thankful, but their appreciation was overwhelming,” Davis said.

Second-year medical student Laura Pabalan quickly realized how appreciative the patients were, even when the conditions did not provide the most comfort.

“Even while I was giving pap smears in a steaming ambulance on the street, while the tape to hold up the privacy bed sheets was peeling off, the Ecuadorian women did not complain about the conditions or lack of medical equipment we had,” she said.

First-year medical students Davis and Moreno will be coordinators for Project HEAL’s trip next spring break. Davis said they are excited about next year, and are already planning where to go and how to raise funds.