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Global Giving

Global Giving

March 2007

by Jacquelyn Spruce

Imagine living in a world of complete hopelessness where water is contaminated, health care services are scarce, and the opportunity to take a shower is considered a luxury. Thousands of Guatemalans and El Salvadorans live in this poverty-stricken world every day.

Students in the Health Science Center’s School of Nursing are determined to help the residents of these countries. Last summer, nursing students worked together with Darlene Gilcreast, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor of chronic nursing, to incorporate a mission trip to South America into their curriculum. After approval, five nursing students and several physicians from the Health Science Center traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador to provide area residents access to quality health care. When the team arrived, thousands of native South Americans desperate for health care had already walked hundreds of miles to line up at the clinics.


Sue Benson, a School of Nursing graduate student; Laura Martin, a fourth-semester nursing student; and Jalen Bartek, a recent graduate of the School of Nursing, worked 12-hour shifts each day in the obstetrics and gynecology postoperative unit. They took vital signs, distributed pain medications and helped to prevent infection. Most of their patients included those who underwent either a hysterectomy or a hernia-repair procedure.

  Laura Martin assists physicians during surgery in Guatemala.
Laura Martin assists physicians during surgery in Guatemala.
"There were several women with prolapsed uteruses who walked for days to come to us so that our doctors could perform hysterectomies," Bartek said. A prolapsed uterus occurs when muscles weaken and cause the uterus to sag, in some cases outside the body. "Once they arrived in the postoperative unit, we continued to ask them if they were in pain because they wouldn’t tell us. They completely trusted us to take care of them," Bartek said.

Health Science Center physicians Leticia Vargas, M.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine; John Boldt, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology; and Elly Xenakis, M.D., assistant professor of ob-gyn who holds the J&R Blumberg Professorship, performed numerous surgeries that may have saved several lives.

"We worked in the postoperative unit with several patients who had hernia repairs," Benson said. "Because of the lack of transportation, the people carry heavy items while walking long distances. The heavy loads cause them to develop hernias, which go untreated. The best part about helping these individuals is that they are so appreciative," Benson said. "Their satisfaction makes us want to continue to participate in mission trips."

El Salvador

Angela Swilling and Rebecca Sinnett, both recent graduates of the School of Nursing, teamed up with San Antonio physicians and dentists to travel to one of the poorest villages in El Salvador – El Sunza. The group offered primary care to children and families.

"A handful of children had extremely high fevers but had no way of treating them," Swilling said. "We watched them closely and treated them with Tylenol and antibiotics. It is small things like over-the-counter medications that we take for granted. They can’t afford to buy them."

The students assessed hundreds of patients, performed physicals, administered medications and even made house calls to individuals who were too sick to come to the clinic.

"Some of these people had been in excruciating pain for months," Swilling said. "Many were severely dehydrated and had stomach problems because the water is so contaminated. We offered them medicine to keep them symptom-free for as long as possible."

Although there was a language barrier, Swilling said she enjoyed providing moral support and encouraging the people she saw. "They had so much trust in us. That truly is an honor."

The students came back from South America with a whole new perspective on the way others live and the importance of proper health care in the United States and in other countries.

"Although they lack so much, to them everything is precious," Benson said. "The mission trip was such a beneficial experience. Doing things like this are wonderful ways for us to be a part of global peace and giving."

Did you Know?

Undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Nursing provided nearly
$6 million in uncompensated health care services to the San Antonio community alone in 2005-2006.


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