Students fine-tune Project HEAL

Second-year medical students Alejandra Fuentes and Diana Mora are this year’s Project HEAL trip leaders

Second-year medical students Alejandra Fuentes and Diana Mora are this year’s Project HEAL trip leaders.

Diana Mora, second-year medical student. Photo by Jesse Jones

Project HEAL is an international health outreach program that serves the rural and indigenous communities of Ecuador. The project is known for having a distinct interdisciplinary approach, integrating students and professionals from the college’s of Medicine, Pharmacy, Dental, Nursing and Public Health and Health Professions. Along with other medical outreach trips led by the students of the College of Medicine, Project HEAL student leaders have been taking a deep look at the purpose of our mission in a developing country and began to make exciting changes that will hopefully benefit both the students’ education and the communities we serve.

In previous years, Project HEAL participants realized that we could better use our resources to create a more fulfilling and lasting impact. For example, when treating the overwhelming number of children who suffer from intestinal parasites, we knew we could do more than just prescribe a pill of albendazole, an antiparasitic. What would happen when a patient ran out of their prescription? Would they know how to prevent this condition from recurring? The concepts of preventative medicine and public health education were a big issue.

Alejandra Fuentes, second-year medical student. Photo by Jesse Jones

Last year, under the direction of now third-year medical students Sam Davis, Wilmer Moreno, and Adam Bennett, Project HEAL included efforts to increase public health education in these communities. Given that we are only there for a week, we realized that teaching our patients to avoid preventable conditions could make a lasting difference. One way we educate our patients is through community theater. We teach the families the importance of washing their hands and boiling water in order to prevent the intestinal parasites. We also teach them about proper nutrition and how to prevent malnutrition. This year we plan to further increase and fine-tune our public health efforts.

In addition, Project HEAL participants have been making efforts to increase the continuity of care. These trips should be both a learning experience for the students as well as an opportunity to serve our patients long after we are gone. One initiative we’re working on with our main attending, Dr. David Wood M.D., M.P.H., is choosing locations that HEAL can visit every year that would create a more sustainable project. We are currently trying to choose among the indigenous communities of the Kichwas in the Andes or the Tsáchilas near Santo Domingo. In the past, we have worked with indigenous communities in remote areas of Ecuador, and it’s been striking to see the number of people who have never seen a doctor in their lifetime. With sustainability, some of these communities may be able to count on us to provide them with continuity of care over the years. Another way students involved in the program hope to achieve sustainability is by expanding their group to include students at other UF colleges.

Since the outreach trips are run by the students, it is the students who must also raise the funds to make the trip possible. We feel this creates a unique learning experience for the students of the HSC. We believe that the prior commitment, dedication, and teamwork necessary to bring about this mission not only brings students from the different Health Science Center colleges together, but also makes the end result even more fulfilling. The student members of Project HEAL have begun their fundraising efforts by organizing the project’s first annual 5K run.

The 5K will take place Saturday, Jan. 8.

Project HEAL leaders are Alejandra Fuentes and Diana Mora, second-year medical students; Leaders of the 5K and public health efforts are Lauren Cooper, second-year medical student and Saad Mir, third-year medical student; our main attending is David Wood, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics at the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville.