Medical mission trip
Photos courtesy of Virginia Hughes November 16, 2023
Medical diagnostics pre-physician assistant students travel to Peru for weeklong service trip
In May of last year, a 10-foot wall with barbed wire known as the “Wall of Shame” divided the wealthy from the impoverished outside Lima, Peru. Lavish white buildings sit on one side of the wall, while on the other, metal shacks are piled atop one another on a dirt road. Here, there’s no running water or electricity.
Getting there requires a treacherous drive along the edge of a cliff followed by traversing dangerous, steep steps. It’s a journey not for the faint of heart. Even those in modest physical shape had trouble.
“A 5-year-old girl with a big smile on her face extended her hand to one of the students who was having difficulty getting up the steps, and she said in Spanish, ‘Come on, I’ll help you; we’ll do this together,’ recalled Virginia Hughes, associate professor in the Department of Medical and Molecular Sciences within in the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences.
That moment of humanity embodied the spirit of the weeklong service-learning trip that brought Hughes and medical diagnostic pre-physician assistant (MDD-PPA) majors Alec MacKinnon, Abigail Flores-Toscano and Erin Dacey to Peru last May for their first medical mission trip. They joined students in Arcadia University’s physician assistant program on the experience hosted by MEDLIFE. The nonprofit partners with low-income communities in Latin America and Africa to improve access to medicine, education and community development.
“Many of our patients urgently need medical treatment, but they don’t have the resources. Often, our patients come to us in critical condition because of the conditions in which they live,” said Rosali Vela, marketing team lead for MEDLIFE.
Vela said community development projects aim to address the root causes of disease. UD students beautified a playground by painting, planting trees and creating a mural.
“Our patients are ailing because they don’t have access to staircases or roads,” Vela said. “So, we added community development projects to all the service-learning projects so we can support communities by leaving a legacy after we’ve gone.”
The trio of UD students spent most of their time in mobile medical clinics focused on patient assessment, dental, obstetrics and gynecology, and education. Each day, they’d rotate between two stations.
“You got a taste of everything,” said Dacey, a senior. “We were exposed to a lot, which made me want to help even more.”
Every morning, long lines wrapped around the concrete perimeter of the medical clinics, where more than 200 people were seen over three days.
“People were coming from miles away, and unfortunately, we had to turn some of them away,” MacKinnon said.
Flores-Toscano, who’s bilingual, was among the few volunteers who could speak Spanish fluently.
“It definitely gave me an advantage and helped me communicate better with patients,” she said.
In the future, Hughes wants to see students enrolled in UD’s Spanish for Healthcare minor go on the medical mission trip so they can act as translators.
“It was clear we needed more people who could speak Spanish, which may be one reason for the long lines,” Hughes said.
But despite the challenges, those they did treat allowed the aspiring physician assistants to see many medical procedures for the first time.
“I had never seen a pap smear or breast exam, so that was really neat,” said Flores-Toscano, who graduated in May 2023.
Some of the most significant needs observed were in the dental clinic.
“We saw 35 patients a day in that clinic, and every one of them walked in with cavities or infections and had to get teeth pulled,” MacKinnon said. You don’t even think about brushing your teeth in the U.S. — it’s just something you do twice a day, and you go to the dentist twice a year for cleanings. In Peru, people go years without any form of preventative care.”
In addition to observing various procedures, they also witnessed gratitude.
“Everyone was extremely grateful,” Dacey said. “On our last day in the clinic, a family made a traditional Peruvian lunch for 30 of us. These are people who don’t have that much food.”
Flores-Toscano, a rehabilitation technician at Rise Physical Therapy, was inspired to go on the medical mission trip by her immigrant parents, who grew up in Colombia and Venezuela.
“From a young age, they told me they didn’t have access to the care we had growing up; it never really connected until I went on this service trip,” she said. “This was a wonderful opportunity to give back and help people who grew up like my parents, who’ve poured so much into me.”
MacKinnon, who graduated in May 2023 and was part of the World Scholars Program, signed up for the medical mission trip within minutes of receiving an email from Hughes. His experiences abroad have helped him build empathy as an EMT with Concordville Fire in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.
“This medical mission trip reassured me that the empathy I gained on my first two study abroad trips was something I could direct towards patients,” MacKinnon said. “I identify with my patients a lot more now, and this experience taught me that empathy can transcend language barriers — it’s more about how you treat the patient.”
Hughes saw that empathy in the students first-hand; it’s something you don’t see in a crowded lecture hall.
“It was extremely satisfying as an educator to see them put their knowledge to the test,” Hughes said. “But I saw these students in a light I hadn’t seen before; the generosity, empathy and gentleness they showcased while caring for patients was something to see.”
The next group of UD medical and molecular sciences students who embark on a MEDLIFE trip to Lima in May of 2024 won’t see the literal wall that divides the wealthy from the impoverished. According to media reports, Lima tore it down in September. However, deep inequities in the Andean nation persist and necessitate the need for medical mission trips that transform the way students care for patients.
“As an EMT, I deal with people from diverse backgrounds, and this experience helped me create a community connection and build trust with my patients,” MacKinnon said. “You never know who’s going to walk into the clinic or emergency room where you work, so experiences like this give you the cross-cultural ability to care for anyone at any time.”