Robert Morris students return from Nicaragua


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College students heading for the beach on spring break is nothing new. But 26 Robert Morris University nursing students went to a beach in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, taking much more than sunscreen and bikinis.

Earlier this month, the students, mostly in the second degree B.S.N. nursing program, spent a week treating families in the small Nicaraguan town of Granada, about 40 minutes from Managua in Central America.

“It was such a life-changing experience for them. The appreciation and values that are learned from these people … it’s so rewarding to give people the health care they would not have if we weren’t there,” said Carl Ross, RMU professor of nursing.

The journey marked his 86th mission trip to Nicaragua, where the certified nurse practitioner has helped develop a men’s health clinic and the two Roberto Clemente clinics.

The students — each toting an extra suitcase filled with clothing, toothbrushes, toothpaste, sinus and allergy medications and other medical supplies — conducted medical and environmental assessments of individual families and held afternoon community clinics.

The medical supplies were largely donated through the school's Student Nurses’ Association.

The RMU group stayed at a bed and breakfast in Managua, a facility with running water and air conditioning. Each day, in groups of two or three, along with a translator and community member, they went to the families’ homes to assess their needs.

“The walls were cement or tin. Some of the floors were cement, but most were loose dirt. Sometimes they used a tarp to divide the rooms,” said student Dakota Carpin, 22, from St. Mary’s in Elk County. The Nicaraguans had no indoor plumbing or air conditioning, and showers and outhouse-like bathrooms were outdoors.

The family atmosphere, despite meager belongings and rudimentary living conditions, was congenial. The children played outside and were happy, said Mr. Carpin.

“I think the first reaction is that you are very shocked to see what little these people have,” said pre-med student, Wes Heinle, 23, of York. He said one household had a mother in her 70s and daughter in her 40s. Their simple life consisted largely of collecting coconuts and visiting with company.

Generally, the people of the community were healthy.

“We see a lot of hypertension due to dehydration, and we do teach them about drinking a lot of water. We also see neck and back pain because the ladies carry their bushels on their heads,” said Mr. Ross.

Osteoarthritis is common because of their lifestyle. Many sleep on beds that are wooden boards, cushioned by clothing. The men work in the fields, cutting down old coffee crops or weeds with a machete. Mr. Carpin said that many have backaches from hand washing clothes over low-standing wash boards and basins.

Diabetes also is prevalent in the Hispanic population so the RMU group talked with families about lifestyle modifications such as weight, exercise and diet.

In the afternoons, the students held their make-shift outdoor clinic under trees where they treated about 30 patients each day.

Citizens in the socialist Sandinista government have free health care, but supplies and accessibility are complicated. Residents in rural areas can’t get to the hospital because they have no cars or other transportation.

"The hospitals are clean according to their standards, but in reality there are frequently two patients in one bed with no sheets or hospital gowns. Stretchers don’t’ have mattresses. Wheelchairs are plastic lawn chairs with wheels on them. It’s very crowded,” he said.

Before leaving, each group presented its family with gifts.

“All of our families got two bags of rice, beans and oil,” said Mr. Ross. Then the students purchased other necessities like pots, pans, fans or mattresses from open air markets. The gifts were presented at a community health fair they held on the last day where the students educated the townspeople about their most common ailments.

The suitcases, which had been collected by Mr. Ross’ nephew, Austin Querriera, as a senior project at Seneca Valley High School, were left to be used as dressers for the families' belongings.

“We learned as much from these people as they learned from us,” said Mr. Heinle. “The trip put things in a whole new perspective."

The experience help solidify Mr. Carpin’s decision to continue with his nursing degree and to one day become a certified nurse practitioner.

“Leaving is tough. I have to take many of the students by the arm and lead them to our van," Mr. Ross said. "Driving away, it’s pretty quiet for the first 20 minutes.”

And the day before their flight home, they actually went to the beach.


Laurie Bailey, freelance writer; suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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