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May 28, 2013

ULM pharmacy students perform medical outreach in Dominican Republic

Eight ULM pharmacy students worked in the Dominican Republic for one week over spring break as part of an elective medical outreach experience.

They called the trip a “life changing” moment in their careers.

Dr. Elizabeth Perry, Dr. David Caldwell, and Dr. Jennifer Smith, all assistant professors in the clinical and administrative sciences department of the ULM College of Pharmacy, accompanied the students.

The eight pharmacy students included: Brooke Ardoin of Opelousas, Sara DeJong of River Ridge, Carlos Irula of Kenner, Danielle Jones of Alexandria, Steven Metz of New Iberia, Victoria Vince of Mandeville, Nichole Witmyer of West Monroe, and Abbi Wright of Whitehouse, Texas.

“We stayed in a hotel that a woman in the Dominican Republic created specifically for mission teams,” said Jones, now in her fourth year.

“It was above her convenience store. We worked in multiple villages throughout Puerto Plata, such as El Cupey, Maggiolo, and Aguas Negras.”

Ardoin names even more villages where the students worked, including Hole of the Pigs, Lo Coco, Munoz, Javillar, and Ranchito.

“By the end of the week,” said Perry, "the team had visited over 100 homes and treated over 300 patients for numerous acute and chronic conditions, including infections, diabetes, hypertension, parasites, pain, malnutrition, and wounds.”

The medical team consisted of one physician, one nurse practitioner, one registered nurse, the College of Pharmacy team, six translators, and non-medical personnel.

Each day the team was divided into three mobile health care teams containing a practitioner, a faculty pharmacist, two pharmacy students, two translators, and a portable pharmacy.

The pharmacy students were responsible for working with the physician to take patient histories, perform physical assessments, develop diagnoses, make treatment recommendations, and dispense and counsel patients on their medications using a translator.

Before arriving in the Dominican Republic, ULM pharmacy students prepared for 10 weeks, training to interact with patients and learning how to raise funds for trips of their own.

Still, students suggest that most of the learning took place in the Dominican Republic itself.

“I learned to be sympathetic with my patients,” said Ardoin. “Most of them broke my heart.”

Jones said, “These patients have little access to medical care, and their living conditions are very poor.”

She and Ardoin both tell the story of one patient, a blind woman the group diagnosed with breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver.

Ardoin describes the woman lying on the floor of her small hut. “Her stomach was very distended and she was in tremendous pain. She couldn’t lift herself up and could barely talk.”

“We knew she probably wouldn’t live much longer,” admits Danielle, “and she was in a lot of pain. Since we did not have controlled substances, we didn’t have great pain medications to give her. However, we did end up compounding ibuprofen and acetaminophen suspensions for her.”

“When we finished, it tasted really bad,” said Ardoin. “So we even flavored the water. It was a very emotional moment for us.”

Through interacting with the people of the Dominican Republic, students realized the utmost importance of listening to their patients and showing interest in their lives.

“Sure, the ibuprofen we left scattered among patients throughout the villages of Puerto Plata will relieve some of their physical pain for a short time,” said Jones, “but our visit, our touch, our smiles, our love – that is what will relieve their worries and give them hope for a longer period of time.”

Ardoin tells the story of a three-year-old boy she named Dominic, who would not speak to the group of students and ran away whenever anyone approached.

“He wouldn’t smile for anything,” she said. “I finally got to pick Dominic up and he just held onto me for dear life. He wouldn’t let go. It was as if he had never been loved before in his life. He followed us from one village to the next.”

“It made me realize how much people need to be loved,” said Ardoin. “Me picking this little boy up probably made his year… It broke my heart.”

Aside from their patients, Jones said, “The most interesting and inspirational people were probably our translators. They ranged from a teenager to a person in their mid-thirties. Some spoke multiple languages. They were incredible to work with and were absolutely instrumental in helping us do our job.”

The pharmacy students were granted one day off of work, however.

“We got to jump off cliffs,” said Ardoin. “It was probably the prettiest scenery I’ve ever experienced. There was a stream at the top of a very long hike that went all the way down to the bottom of the river. We got to jump off cliffs as high as 40 feet! I still can’t believe we did that.”

The students all seemed to benefit wildly from the experience.

“The College of Pharmacy hopes to continue offering this elective to interested pharmacy students every year,” Perry said.

Jones encourages all students, pharmacy or otherwise, to consider making a similar trip.

She insists, “If you can afford it, go. If you can’t afford it, raise the money and go. It’s life changing.”

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