Student view:

Sean Morris: Small country, big impact

April 20, 2016

Sean Morris, of Frankfort Michigan, is in his second year of study in the College of Osteopathic Medicine

For some of us, it was our first trip to Guatemala. I was among eight MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine students who took part in a service elective. Our experience was organized in conjunction with DOCARE, an international osteopathic medical service organization. As a second-year medical student approaching the end of preclinical coursework, I wanted to participate in this elective to practice my clinical skills, broaden my experience in global health and work with patients in the setting of a developing country.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked on public health projects in Rwanda and Tanzania before coming to medical school. Medical school can be wearisome, and finding ways to engage with real patients in real need is very rewarding to me. I gained an appreciation for the months of hard work, planning and coordinating that our attending physicians and administrators invested on our behalf to make our trip educational and impactful.

Our group spent four days of clinic in three rural villages two hours outside of Antigua. All told, nearly 800 patients were seen by osteopathic medical students, residents and attending physicians representing a variety of medical specialties.

Between the attending physicians and residents on the trip, there were many decades of combined experience serving the Antigua, Guatemala region. One week seemed like too short a time to serve a patient population facing such significant and unremitting health challenges.

Sean Morris examines a child in Guatemala

However, the leadership of the MSUCOM Guatemala service elective exemplifies a commitment to deliver consistent, sustained care to some of the world’s poorest people. As students, we learned a great deal about the challenges facing vulnerable patient populations, and we all came away with genuine ambitions to participate in medical missions throughout our future careers in medicine.

Our trip began at McLaren Oakland Hospital, where we were responsible for packing suitcases we would carry to Guatemala with donated medications and medical supplies – as close to the 50-pound limit as we could get. When we arrived in Guatemala for our first clinic, the attending physicians directed the unpacking of medications, supplies and diagnostic equipment, assembling a pharmacy station, ob-gyn clinic and multiple general medicine stations in the mess hall of the village primary school.

Kids from the school crowded around the doors and windows to see what we were up to in the morning, and invited us to play catch, basketball and soccer on our lunch break. Hanging out with those kids was a highlight for many of our volunteers.

The days in clinic went by quickly, as patient after patient was triaged, examined and treated for a variety of conditions. Patients were treated for everything from ear infections and musculoskeletal dysfunctions like osteoarthritis and tendinitis to esophageal reflux and gastritis. Upper respiratory complaints were common, as families prepare meals over wood fires in unventilated living spaces.

Osteopathic manipulative medicine was especially helpful, as most of our patients were subsistence farmers who regularly carry large baskets of wood and water on their heads and shoulders over long distances, or toil over looms carrying out repetitive movements for hours on end. We also provided vitamin supplements, antibiotic therapy, pain management and ordered referrals to the DOCARE clinic in Guatemala City for more complicated cases.

Those of us who spoke little to no Spanish going into the trip left Guatemala with the ability to ask simple questions, and carry out basic historical interviews. “Is there a cough?” “Where is the pain in your stomach?” “How many children do you have?”

Our final day in clinic found us in a village with a population of mostly Kaqchikel speakers – a derivative of an ancient Proto-Mayan language. This required an assembly line of translators to gather information from our patients.

Many of the residents on the trip sacrificed vacation time and reorganized their shifts to take part in the Guatemala medical mission. This trip was about taking time away from our everyday work and training to engage with our osteopathic colleagues, explore new cultures, having fun and providing the care that we could to people we won’t soon forget.