There are an immense amount of volunteer opportunities throughout the world. My friend Niki has participated in three rounds of volunteering. All as a medical student. All in third world countries. Brave? Yes. Adventurous? Yes. She’s got it going on. I met up with her on Roatan, a small island off the coast of Honduras. She was volunteering again at the medical clinic down the road from our hostel.
Let’s Chat Volunteering!
Where have you volunteered overseas? In what capacity?
Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras.
All international volunteer trips have been medical trips as a medical student.
As a medical student, I have a physician to whom I’m assigned–my attending. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, we also had upper-level students to whom we were assigned. We would all see patients but as a first or second-year medical student, we would then report findings to the senior student. They would then agree with treatment or, if they felt it warranted additional work-up, would indicate as such. Or they would see the patient to expedite care.
My time in Honduras came at the end of medical school. It was the last rotation before graduation and my attendings allowed me more autonomy. In the less straight forward cases, I could still turn to them for guidance. Otherwise, it was mostly a matter of me seeing the patient and creating a plan of care. This would range from reviewing their medications and ensuring it’s adequate to diagnosing mosquito-borne viral infections.
How does training in a third world country differ than the US?
Working in developing countries reveals the absence of resources which are available in the United States.
Take diabetes as an example. It was one of the most problematic diseases to manage while I was in Honduras. Not because they have some unique type of the disease. It’s because of the limited access to medication.
Metformin is one of the top first line drugs used in controlling diabetes. It’s inexpensive, generic and is usually well-tolerated. It does a remarkable job in treating non-insulin dependent diabetes (formerly Type II diabetes). However, for the entirety of my stay in Honduras, we struggled with helping patients who were diabetic because the clinic was out of Metformin and the patients were unable to afford it at the local pharmacy. So patients would come in with out of control blood sugar because the clinic was out of Metformin the last visit, they were given a prescription but didn’t get it filled.
We would look in the pharmacy to see what drugs were available only to realize there aren’t any other options.
So you’re faced with having to send some patients to the hospital to be given insulin and started on an insulin regimen because the island has insulin in its hospital and this will allow the out of control sugar to be managed. In the U.S, these patients would have been years away from needing insulin.
Would you recommend incorporating an overseas mission for medical students? Why?
Yes!!! absolutely. It’s one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences in which I’ve been involved. It may sound corny but it’s truly an honor to give my time to people who are in countries without benefit of the health care we enjoy in the United States. When you show up and patients are in lines that wrap around buildings and down dirt roads, waiting. Or sitting in a furnished clinic but knowing they’ll be there all day to see one of the doctors but never once complaining. They aren’t there for the latest TV, gaming console, or concert ticket. They’re seeking help and trust us with their care.
A picture in my mind and one I will never forget from Haiti–seeing babies in little t-shirts and nothing else playing in the dirt or older kids with slightly more clothes on playing chase, all the while laughing and giggling. Enjoying life. That part has repeatedly causes me such turmoil at the disparity between the majority of life in America vs those in Haiti.
Giving back and being a health missionary doesn’t mean you have to go overseas. One of my favorite national groups is Remote Area Medical. Though focused heavily in the Appalachian region, they travel nationally. And have done international trips as well. What makes them special to me? It’s all volunteers except for a small core group of RAM staff. Thousands of people have joined RAM clinics to serve their local communities. You don’t always have to be medically inclined to participate. There are vet, dental, vision, and medical services. If you want to help, contact them! There may be a need for help on the vet side. Or vision.
RAM has been my go-to in years I didn’t go overseas. There are patients in the US equally limited in terms of access. I saw someone who had not seen a doctor in >10 years and was binding an inguinal hernia with a piece of leather to keep working.
Not all mission trips are 14 hour days for a week straight.
As previously mentioned, my trip to Roatan was well-orchestrated. The clinic really maximized the volunteers and created a work schedule that would minimize burnout. So I had time to visit, sight see, and work on SCUBA. We were still seeing patients who were quite uneducated about their health. So patient education, in addition to treating their comorbidities or illnesses, was paramount. These are people who work very hard for not much money and are willing to use whatever they have for the clinic. Five dollars for a clinic visit will cover the visit and medications prescribed. Labs are extra but are VERY reasonable. It was a beautiful set up to make healthcare affordable and obtainable to a population that might greatly suffer otherwise.
Any extra benefits received for being a volunteer?
For me, it’s the ability to give back to people who don’t have the resources I sometimes take for granted. It’s learning how to manage disease and medicine when the tools you’re used to have access to aren’t around. For my most recent trip, the clinic (Clinica Esperanza) did a fantastic job of managing the volunteers’ schedules to ensure they weren’t worked to exhaustion.
Everyone worked in shifts, either morning or afternoon. Weekends were off. And once a week, we had the option of going to one of the local resorts for a little R and R.
Are there extra costs involved in going overseas besides airfare? If so, what?
It’s site specific but yes. In addition to housing, there are fees paid to the volunteer site. This is how they continue to operate. For longer volunteer stints, you have to consider the cost of food and transportation. For the week-long trips I’d done to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, it was one fee for the trip and that included airfare, transportation, food and housing.
For my Honduras trip, I went without a group and had to piece the trip together myself. I grossly underestimated food costs on the island and the cost of transportation on a daily basis.