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International health care experience delivers unexpected gifts

By Kate Chesar

For University of Dayton sophomore Alli Geers, an international medical experience to Panama offered her a service opportunity and the chance to travel abroad for the first time. The experience was more than she ever imagined.

Geers was one of 12 students to travel to Panama during spring break in March through UD's collaboration with Global Brigades, a nonprofit health and sustainable development organization that works with volunteers from North American and European universities.

Geers gained one-on-one experience with physicians from the U.S. and Panama as they delivered dental and health care to more than 400 patients in two temporary clinics in primary school buildings in rural communities west of Panama City. Geers also connected with the people who visited the clinic, while experiencing a new culture.

“One particular interaction stands out to me,” said Geers, a biochemistry major from Cincinnati. “We were in the clinic from 9 in the morning to about 5 in the afternoon and there were families there for dental care who arrived at the clinic before us in the morning and waited most of the day to be seen.

“It amazed me, the amount of patience everyone had, even though they were there all day. Part of me changed for the better, and I would love to explore that more.” 

Geers said she hopes to return to Panama with the University on a future Global Brigades trip.

UD collaboration with Global Brigades in Panama

Marylynn Herchline, a Dayton pediatrician and premed instructor at UD, has guided UD students on 11 international medical experiences to Central America the past 12 years. Like Geers, she also witnesses the great patience displayed by the people coming to the clinics.

“Many people will walk early in the morning to attend our medical and dental clinics, and they may not receive treatment until much later in the day. They never complain as they sit waiting to be seen,” Herchline said. “The students compare this to the hurried and demanding time issues that they witness in their daily lives. The experience exposes a significant cultural difference between Panamanian people and those in the U.S. It makes students stop to consider the need for change in their perception of time and busyness.” 

As the group takes time to reflect after the clinic each day, Herchline notices another aspect that repeatedly stands out for students — gratitude. 

“Even after experiencing a long day and sometimes painful dental procedures, the community members express ‘gracias’ many times,” Herchline said. “This grateful mindset is remarkable, since the care and medications they are receiving are very basic compared to the advanced health care we have available in the U.S.”

Mattie Casto, a junior pre-dentistry major from Cincinnati, recounted one of her most memorable moments from her experience during the spring 2022 brigade to Panama.

“One day when we were leaving a community, a community member waited for us to finish all our work, and as we left the clinic he came to say goodbye,” she said. “He was in tears thanking us for all the work we did.” 

Casto realized this was the first time many of the community members had accessed healthcare services. 

“It made me realize how grateful I am for our healthcare system,” she said.

Casto is planning to attend UD’s next immersive experience to Panama in December 2023.

Elizabeth Rhoads, director of UD's Premedical Programs office, accompanied the medical immersion trip to Panama during the 2023 spring break. Rhoads said she values the cross-cultural skills students build while they host the clinics and the professional development that occurs as they interact with and observe the medical professionals delivering care.

"The medical immersion experience benefits pre-health students in many aspects, including vocational discernment and developing intra- and interpersonal skills that health professional schools are looking for in applicants," Rhoads said. "Students grow in core competencies, such as service orientation, cultural competence, teamwork and adaptability. The reflection component of the immersion prepares students to articulate their experiences in their application and interviews."

Visit the website to learn more about the University’s Premedical Programs or subscribe to the Premedical Office Friday Update.

Top photo: University of Dayton sophomore Alli Geers (center), a biochemistry major from Cincinnati, poses with classmates during a trip to Panama over spring break.

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