Emily Harrison, clinical professor of family medicine and executive director of Shoulder to Shoulder, a nonprofit organization that works with poor rural Honduran communities, spearheaded the project.
Twice a year for the past three years, the Med School’s Department of Family Medicine has sent a “brigade” of doctors, students and volunteers to Guachipilincito to provide care and community health workshops, Harrison said. Medical students can receive elective credit for participating in the trips, which occur each year in January and July.
Facilitating a project with high ethical criteria was a top priority for the department, said Jeffrey Borkan, professor of family medicine and department chair. The department chose to partner with Shoulder to Shoulder because of the organization’s community-based, sustainable and highly ethical model.
“Shoulder to Shoulder is not just the delivery of health care,” Harrison said, adding that the organization also works to empower young women and increase education and nutrition throughout Honduras. “It’s a really well thought out model.”
“Theoretically, all international health development work is about partnering and working with the community instead of for them,” said Meagan Morse ’12.5, who traveled to Guachipilincito with Med School professors after her freshman year and has remained involved with the community since. “All of your thinking has to be long term, and sometimes it can be frustrating because it feels like you’re not making any progress.”
But she said the program has had some fantastic successes. “Three years ago, there wasn’t even a relationship.”
On her first trip to Guachipilincito, the group’s goal was to decide how the University could best partner with the community, Morse said. The decision to build a health clinic in the town had only been made a few months before. “It was very much exploratory,” she said.
It was only a two-week trip, which “really wasn’t enough time to develop a relationship with the community,” Morse said. “I felt like I wanted more time there.” A year later, she took a semester off and returned to Guachipilincito.
During the semester, Morse tested water quality, planted a community garden at the clinic and researched the effectiveness of Shoulder to Shoulder’s recently instituted supplementary feeding program for young children. Morse said she visited different houses every day and had conversations with the families about various health topics to better understand how they saw the health and nutrition problems in the community. “It was very important for me to figure out what they wanted,” she said.
Morse returned to Guachipilincito for two weeks in July to participate in the clinic’s opening. She said she looks forward to seeing how the community takes ownership of the clinic and has plans to develop a scholarship program for community members who want to go into medicine.
“I’m really excited for the possibilities,” she said.
Gabriele DuVernois ’11 MD’15 also traveled to Honduras for the opening of the clinic. A month into medical school classes, she said her time in Guachipilincito has already helped her in her studies.
“Right now we’re doing patient interviewing — how to approach and connect with people you’ve never met,” DuVernois said. Though the clinic’s medical staff saw hundreds of people each day during DuVernois’ stay in Honduras, they managed to spend at least 20 minutes with each patient.
“They really wanted to get a sense of who these people were, what their lives were like,” DuVernois said, adding that this is something she hopes to mirror in her future career as a doctor.
Harrison said these interpersonal relationships constitute the most important aspect of community work. She said she would like to see more undergraduates volunteer in Guachipilincito and hopes the University will fund student travel to the clinic.
Undergraduates are “incredibly energetic, they’re smart, they have skills that are really useful in building community relationships, and that’s really important to us,” she said. “They give a lot.”
Borkan said he hopes to see a formal student organization develop in the near future. “At the opening, people were already talking about future projects,” DuVernois said. “They kept asking, ‘How can we make this better? How can we improve?’ The clinic wasn’t just an ending point.”