At the end of fall semester 2018, we heard some bad news. After planning the entire semester for our brigade to Honduras, CMU told us that the school would not allow organizations to go to Honduras because of safety reasons. At first, we panicked. Nicaragua was going through a political revolt, so it was a no-go. Panama was not doing medical brigades. And Ghana was just not feasible. We were concerned we wouldn't even be able to go on a brigade.
The situation was especially stressful because the organization faced a transition this year. We had an extraordinarily large number of new members (the record number in recent years!). 15 out of our 25 members had not participated in CMU GMB before, and we were concerned that these members would never get to experience going on a brigade. Fortunately, Global Brigades let us know that they were reopening medical brigades in Panama, so with a change of location, the trip was back on!
The debacle demonstrated our resilience, a resilience that we needed for the brigade. Our brigade started at 6pm on March 7th, as we met at the Margaret Morrison rotunda. We bussed five hours down to Dulles airport and flew a redeye flight to Panama City. When we arrived, most of us already wanted to hit the hay, but even before getting out of the airport, we faced another dilemma. Our coordinator was nowhere to be seen. We waited for half an hour as Katie and Aliya, our co-presidents, tried to get in contact with Global Brigades. During that half hour, it was simply us, 25 members with our suitcases, stranded at the Panama Airport with no idea how long we would be there.
Our co-presidents finally got a hold of the Global Brigades office, and the people on the other line explained that there was a misunderstanding. Typically, groups did not fly redeye flights, so they assumed we were coming later that day. After waiting another hour, a man from the office came to the airport. The first thing he told us was that if he was there, there was something wrong. Although the statement was certainly frightening, after what we had gone through, nothing seemed to faze us or stop us from having a successful brigade.
Since Global Brigades expected us to come later that day, they had no plan for us, and it was only noon. So, they decided to pay us back in the best way possible: being tourists in Panama for the day! When my friends and family asked me, "If you're going to Panama, are you going to see the Panama Canal?" I responded, "No, we won't have time." I even found it to be on the more unsophisticated side, thinking that we would go to the one place they knew in Panama. But alas, I stood corrected as I marveled at the largest canal in the world.
Now, I could tell the rest of the trip in numbers. I could tell you that we saw 517 patients from 9 communities in three days during our medical clinics in La Venta and El Pueblo Nuevo. I could also tell you that we distributed more than 500 pairs of glasses at our vision clinic and presented to around a hundred kids at our health and wellness fair. But it wouldn't capture all the things we experienced during the trip. It wouldn't speak to the goofballs of the group, like Josh faking a head injury and the Kowalewskis switching the rules to the wombat game (hopefully Cam doesn't read this). It wouldn't remind us of our amazing coordinator, Jose, who is sometimes a good boy, sometimes a bad boy, and sometimes a GMB coordinator, not to mention our amazing translators, Diane and Leo. (While I'm at it, shoutouts to everyone who helped us including the bus drivers, the doctors, and our beloved Mama T, the pharmacist). And it especially wouldn't capture every moment that we had with a community member in all the different stations in the medical clinic, giving meaning to our hard work before and during the trip.
This was my third brigade, and I can safely say that each brigade so far has been incredible in its own ways. This brigade was certainly unique because of our side adventures at the Panama Canal and a zoo, where several of our members had intimate moments with the monkeys (see the pictures, the intimacy was physical!). But for me, the brigade was most meaningful, not because of all the things that happened that make great stories, but the small moments I had with my fellow members. Sharing moments of nervous quietness before the start of a day at the clinic, smiling and waving to another member at a different station, and sharing honest reflections at the end of each day: these are the moments where I felt the strength of a trusting and caring community and they are the moments that push me to keep giving my all to this organization.
So, to all our members, whether you joined the group this year or four years ago, thank you for sharing this amazing experience with me.
Unofficial Social Chair
At 5:30am this morning, my roommates’ alarms went off. This is the earliest I have ever woken up this year, but I wasn’t as exhausted as I thought I would be. Everyone in our room quickly rolled out of bed so that we would be able to make it to breakfast by 6:00am. Today was our first day of our medical brigade and we had a lot in store for us.
After breakfast we all piled onto our bus and began our two hour trek towards the community we would be working with for the next three days. Looking out the window on the bus ride, I was awed by the culture of the foreign country I was so lucky to be able to visit again. As we drove, I would put myself in the shoes of the people that I saw in the streets and imagined what would make me happy if I were living as they did. The simplicity of the cities and the landscape was truly beautiful.
After driving up and down several mountains and even past a volcano, we finally arrived at the small clinic we would be working in. The clinic only had three main rooms, and after some discussion, we decided to place the two dentistry stations in one room, the optometry and pharmacy in another room, and the gynecology station would be in the last room – all of the other stations, triage, charla, and consultation, would all be outside.
The morning, I worked with Ines in the pharmacy. When we got there, we quickly opened up each of the suitcases filled with the medicine that we had packed yesterday. Initially, the day started out a little slow, as the pharmacy was the last station for every patient. However, our day picked up really quickly, as every patient has to go to the pharmacy station. When each patient arrives, he/she would hand us a form from the doctor with their prescribed medicines listed. We would then have to collect all of the medications from our suitcases and then describe to the patients how to take each other medications before letting them leave our clinic. Although my high-school level Spanish was rusty, it was so rewarding to be able to hand a small bag of medications to so many patients and see in their eyes that we were able to make their day a little better.
Today the weather felt like it was a hundred degrees. But hundreds of community members still showed up to our clinic, whether it was by bus, moped, or walking. Although there were definitely areas of our clinic that I think that we can improve on tomorrow, I really hope that we were able to leave a positive impression on each and every one of the patients, just like that have left in us.
-Tiffany Fu, Brigader
It is so refreshing to get out of the CMU bubble. The weather here is amazing, the sunset is beautiful and the air is so clear. Two years ago, on my first brigade, we had come to this same compound in Nicaragua and here we are again, on my last brigade. Looking back, I remembered how excited on my first brigade and although it isn’t my first brigade anymore, I was still so excited to see where this brigade would take us, who we would meet, and how we would grow.
After a few presentations about the general logistics of a medical brigade, today we met Ines – the pharmacist who would be working with us on our brigade. Ines introduced us to the medications that we would be giving out and then instructed us to begin sorting and counting the medications. Once that was finished, we also created hygiene packs with the supplies that we collected ourselves. As we opened each of our suitcases that were filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, and soap, it was exciting to see how many supplies we had collected in preparation for the trip. All of the time that each of us spent standing outside Rite Aid asking for donations was going towards something that we would all be able to see so soon.
After we finished packing all the medications that we needed, we had some free time to explore the compound and play some volleyball. I am really looking forward to the medical brigade tomorrow - working with the doctors, meeting the community members, and working as a team with the members of our own brigade.
-Tiffany Fu, Brigader
This morning we finished up all of our public health projects – 2 septic tanks, 2 bathrooms, and a concrete floor. It was true engineering at work, and hard work at that! My favorite part about public health is the novelty of it all – none of us have construction expertise so we all have to work together and play our strengths to get the projects done. It was rewarding to see our efforts completed, and even more rewarding to know that these public health projects were going to improve community health and well-being for years to come.
The owner of the house expressed his gratitude and said he was amazed at how smart we were at such a young age. I thought Samanda, a freshman brigader in our group, brought up a great point in response. She said that everyone has the capacity to learn and be “smart,” it was just about access to resources. It was a good reminder to be thankful for the fact that I have access to such a strong education. It also motivates to continue my service work to try and provide these resources to others.
-Maya Holay, Brigader
Today was our final day in the medical clinic. We wrapped up the day seeing 254 patients, bringing our total to over 620 patients over 3 days! I was so impressed with how well we used the space that we were given and even more impressed by our new members who fit right in to what can be a chaotic system at times.
I was in charla (translated to “chat” in English) with the kids in the morning. It was a blast, as well as a challenge. We were able to provide fluoride treatments as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss to all the community children. I was proud to use the Spanish I’ve been learning for the past few semesters – it made the experience much more enriching. We showed that we cared about the kids by simply playing games and drawing pictures with them. It doesn’t take a lot but I truly think it means a lot.
In the afternoon I was in Data Informatics - not the most glamourous of jobs but very important for the holistic approach of Global Brigades. Data Informatics entails taking all the data from each patient and entering it into Global Brigades’ system so the organization can develop an understanding of the community’s needs. As an engineer, I can appreciate the necessity to collect this data, as it makes the whole process more efficient and effective.
-Maya Holay, Brigader
No sleep till Pittsburgh. The bus took off at 2:30 am this morning and many of us stayed up straight through the previous night mitigating checked bag costs and playing cards. There’s no real way to make the last day in country anything more than a bittersweet occasion. At this point our group had grown closer than I think any of us could have foreseen and nobody is very eager to leave Nicaragua and all the memories that were made there. As always, I think the hardest part is leaving behind the genuine human connections that we make in country. We still have each other, but invariably we are saying goodbye to some amazing people, both from Global Brigades and from the communities we visited.
This trip definitely changed me for the better and I think I’m safe in saying that everyone in our group was touched in one way or another. From the constant (and sometimes annoying) riddles and mind games that brought us closer together, to the sunburns, to the profound encounters with amazing people in a very different world, I left with a long overdue fresh perspective. Did we have a lasting impact on the communities we visited? I hope so. Are they on their way to independence? I truly believe so. But one thing that I know for certain is that everyone on this trip is taking with them a fresh take on what it really means to be successful. Success is the ability to help others.
The second day of the medical clinic is always one of the more exciting days on the Global Medical Brigade Trips. That is because this is the day we get to implement all the changes we settled upon during our reflection following the first day. I am astonished time and time again at how much smoother things are able to run after only a single day’s experience and some creative problem solving. Even this year, which was unique to other years because of how many of our supplies were confiscated upon entering Nicaragua, I was amazed at how people could work so cohesively under less than ideal conditions.
This year I got to experience the pharmacy station for the first time. That means organizing and preparing patient-specific medication packages that we can give out after the patients have consulted with the physicians. There, in a small, dimly lit, bat infested room I witnessed a well-oiled machine consisting of myself, two other brigaders, and one Global Brigades employee churn out medications faster than the prescriptions could come in. I left that station that day with a well-rounded Spanish vocabulary consisting solely of medication names, and a newfound respect for the kind of organization that goes in to keeping these clinics running smoothly.
Looking back on it now, I’m fascinated that this group, with such a large amount of first timers, and in such an unlikely location, was able to run a medical clinic so smoothly. We saw around 200 patients every day, using only one tiny building with five tinier rooms. And even though we may have had to share stethoscopes and constantly avoid heatstroke, I left each day feeling that we had helped.
-Cameron Smith, Brigader
After sleeping in for an extra 30 minutes, we all excitedly headed out for a day of public health brigades. We split up into 3 groups: 2 groups building sanitary stations which include a sink, a toilet, a shower, and a sewage tank, and the other group putting down concrete floors. The sanitary station gives the families a place to improve their hygiene habits to avoid common illnesses. The sewage tank is also extremely important because many diseases are caused by sewage mixing with the drinking water, so the sewage tank will help keep the drinking water clean. The concrete floors are also extremely important to have to avoid foot diseases that can be picked up from bugs or viruses in the dirt. To our group, public health was an important part of our brigade because we could physically see the long lasting impact that these projects would leave on the families. It was amazing for us to be able to meet our family and work with them to build something sustainable. Our group worked tirelessly to mix concrete and level the bricks to create sound structures. We had almost finished by the time we left, so we drove away excited to see the fruits of our labor be finished the next day.
-Casey Salandra, Brigader
As the sun rose, we rose with it to start our journey from Pittsburgh to Nicaragua. The day started off slow as the 24 of us boarded a bus to Cleveland with sleepy eyes and lots of yawns. The chatter was kept to a minimum as we loaded 25 large bags of medications and hygiene supplies onto the bus. Both nerves and excitement could be felt in the air as everyone prepared for the week ahead. As soon as we got to the airport, the group began to come alive with excitement. We began playing card games, doing crossword puzzles and trying our hand at some riddles. We all began to come out of our shells, shake off our nerves and remember why we were spending 18 hours traveling to Central America. We were excited for the chance to make an impact and give back to the global community. Although the day did not go as smoothly as we hoped, we finally made it to our rooms around 1 am with high spirits looking forward to the upcoming week.
-Casey Salandra, Brigader