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Global Brigades aims to decrease health disparity

Students examine a patient in Panama, where Duke Global Brigades treated 385 people this summer as part of their ongoing goal to decrease health care disparities around the world.
Students examine a patient in Panama, where Duke Global Brigades treated 385 people this summer as part of their ongoing goal to decrease health care disparities around the world.

After treating 385 patients in Panama this summer, Duke Global Brigades is pushing forth its efforts to diminish health care disparities in third world countries.

Part of the international umbrella group Global Brigades, which is an organization that sends students to aid under-served communities, the Duke chapter has significantly expanded its reach and offerings since its founding in 2006. Originally, Duke Global Brigades visited just a single country once per year and offered only medical and dental assistant positions to student-volunteers. Now, the organization makes excursions to third world countries twice a year and offers a variety of volunteer positions, including public health and legal adviser positions.

“In a growing global economy, there are opportunities for these impoverished countries, but there are barriers preventing them from achieving them,” said senior Faith Roberston, executive director of Duke Global Brigades. “We are giving people the tools that empower and educate them, so they can bridge that gap.”

Duke Global Brigades currently treats patients in Ghana, Honduras and Panama but plans on making a trip to Nicaragua in 2013, said Robertson, who is also a photographer for The Chronicle. In the communities visited, residents make an average wage of $2 per day and have minimal resources, making student involvement critical. Global Brigades is the world’s largest sustainable student-led global health organization. Currently, the organization has more than 4,000 volunteers and has 380 chapters—an increase of 30 chapters since 2011.

“[Treating these patients] helps you not only empathize with people in third world countries but also for people here who haven’t had the privileges and opportunities that we take for granted,” she added.

Being ‘the change’

Students can work within five various sections of Duke Global Brigades—medical and dental, legal, public health, water sanitation and business. The demand for treatment is so great in these areas that each student participating checks one to two bags full of medical supplies for the trip. The students acquire these supplies through fundraising events at Duke and in the Durham area, such as sponsored Shooters II nights.

Once on the ground, students will work hands-on with patients and doctors in the clinics. Students are responsible for taking patients’ vital signs and recording symptoms.

Dr. James Tulsky, director of the Center for Palliative Care and a participant in the Duke Global Brigades trip to Honduras in summer 2011, added that volunteer positions at an American hospital disallow students from interacting physically with the patients.

“You get so much more interaction with the patients than you would anywhere else in the United States,” said senior Doug Wackerle, president of the medical and dental section of Duke Global Brigades. “Also, being exposed to other cultures is incredibly important—they’ll have cultural beliefs where they don’t want to take certain medicines, and you have to adapt to handle that situation.”

The public health and water sanitation aspects of the club also work together to improve factors that contribute to worsened community health. Students working with water sanitation dig wells or install pipes that bring clean water to a community, lessening illness transported through dirty water. Public health students use education, such as lessons on the importance of washing hands, to similarly prevent illness from spreading.

“We work on reducing the underlying problem of many of the health issues we see,” said senior Deborah Moon, co-president of the public health section of Duke Global Brigades. “You can wash your hands as many times as you want, but if your water isn’t clean, it doesn’t help.”

Students involved with the legal division of the group give locals legal advice that can help them get more government assistance, as seen during the trip to Panama, where student volunteers helped locals get their land titles. More than 50 percent of land in Panama is currently untitled, said sophomore Avery Morton, vice president of Duke Global Brigades’ legal division. When land is untitled, locals cannot request services, such as new roads, from the government.

Members involved with the business side of the organization work directly with local businesses to make them more lucrative. In one instance, honey farmers in El Bale were selling their products through a third party because their business was not legally registered as a vendor. Duke Global Brigades helped the farmers register as a business, so the farmers could get the direct proceeds from their product.

The expansion from strictly medical volunteering opportunities into other sectors benefits students as well as the countries visited, members noted.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve expanded to multiple disciplines,” Wackerle said. “We’ve evolved since I was a freshman, and it’s great for our overall mission.”

The organization also allows students to be in actual contact with important issues they have already heard about, Tulsky added.

“We know what happens in the world, but there’s a difference between knowing and really knowing,” he said. “Hearing these stories and getting involved change the community and you as a person.”

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