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Students provide healthcare to banana workers during service trip to Dominican Republic

by Rachel Griess

A group of Colorado State University students got a first-hand look at healthcare challenges in the developing world when they traveled to the Dominican Republic in August as part of a volunteer medical brigade to help banana workers and their families.

Eight students with the CSU chapter of Timmy Global Health joined the weeklong trip, which also involved two dozen physicians and other professionals from across the country, as well as a student group from Tulane University.

Serving hundreds with little access to healthcare

The group provided free healthcare services to more than 400 people tied to Banelino, a fair-trade banana cooperative in the northwestern corner of the Dominican Republic. Banelino is a new international partner for the nationwide nonprofit Timmy Global Health; the two organizations are teaming to deliver medical services to people with little or no access to healthcare.

“I want to attend medical school when I graduate from CSU, and going on this trip solidified that decision,” said Heidi Halvorsen, a CSU senior in nutrition. “The students get one-on-one interaction with the patients and the doctors that I had never experienced before.”

An inspiring cultural experience

During the trip, the CSU students ran pharmacy operations, gathered patient health information, provided fluoride treatments to children, directed patients, and observed medical exams and treatments.  The experience immersed students in a much different culture and provided special inspiration for those in pursuit of medical careers.

Keerthi Vemulapalli, majoring in environmental health, was among the CSU students providing healthcare to banana workers in the Dominican Republic.

“Timmy Global Health assigned CSU with Banelino in the Dominican Republic as a permanent partnership,” said Keerthi Vemulapalli, a senior in environmental health and president of the CSU chapter of Timmy Global Health. “It’s important that we make ties within the populations we help. We want them to look forward to us coming every year and have our relationship with the community strengthen over time.”

Most of the student volunteers are preparing for medical school. They yearn to make professional connections and to gain a greater understanding of general medicine, Vemulapalli said.

“Though the medical experience was awesome, I gained so much from the cultural experience,” Vemulapalli said. “Because of the diversity in Monte Cristi, we were able to experience both Haitian and Dominican lifestyles. It was amazing to see how we connected with both cultures in completely different ways.”

David Gilkey, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, is adviser to the CSU chapter of Timmy Global Health. He said trips such as that to the Dominican Republic exemplify the international service learning opportunities available to CSU students.

“Transformational changes happen in young people as they discover the world outside of their families and communities,” Gilkey said. “The cross-cultural experience often opens one’s eyes to the variability in human existence and leaves students thinking hard about real priorities.”

Timmy Global Health serves world-wide

The August trip was the third medical brigade for the CSU chapter of Timmy Global Health, which is one of 35 university chapters in the United States. The parent organization is based in Indianapolis, Ind.,and works with student volunteers, medical professionals, and partner organizations to expand access to healthcare for people in need around the world; current projects are in Ecuador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and the United States.

Most of the CSU students who joined the Timmy Global Health trip are preparing for medical careers.

 “Timmy Global Health has gotten me to participate in more student activities than I normally would have because I want to get our club noticed and to get more students involved,” Halvorsen said. “I love this club because of what I get to do for the community and the world.”

Gilkey, the club adviser, said involvement benefits people who receive help – and the students who provide it.

 “I’ve watched students grow up and become sincerely interested in making the world a better place,” he said. “These young people have joined a growing group of people who think and act globally.”

In preparation for its annual service trip, the CSU chapter of Timmy Global Health holds fund-raisers and medical supply drives. Students also contribute to northern Colorado efforts to help underserved people. To get involved, contact David Gilkey, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences,