Published May 20, 2016
University at Buffalo medical trainees are providing much-needed medical care to underserved populations in Haiti and Honduras. The reciprocal benefits are gaining valuable clinical experience and a firsthand look at global health issues.
Underscoring the critical nature of the visits is the fact some residents of Fontaine, a poor, medically underserved village in rural Haiti, have come to view the medical students and faculty as their primary care providers.
A group led by David M. Holmes, MD, clinical associate professor of family medicine and director of global health education, visiting Fontaine for the fifth time in three years, treated 540 patients. A second team, led by Jennifer M. Corliss, MD, clinical assistant professor of family medicine, went to Honduras, providing care for about 450 patients.
Fontaine is about five hours north of Port-au-Prince, and while a medical clinic is less than a 30-minute drive away, most people in the village have no means to get there.
“I really liked this trip because I got to see a number of patients that I had treated on earlier trips there,” says Vinny Polsinelli, a third-year medical student who started the UB medical trips to Haiti.
“There was a day on this trip where every patient I saw was a follow-up patient,” he says.
Due to their familiarity with the patients and knowledge of their medical histories, the medical students are able to provide some continuity of care.
“UB students and faculty have basically become the primary care physicians for the people of Fontaine and surrounding villages,” Polsinelli says.
Seventeen medical students, a medical resident, three faculty members, an office manager and an ultrasound technician from Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo who brought a portable ultrasound machine, went on the Haiti trip.
“The ultrasound assistance was very helpful, allowing us to do prenatal checks and to evaluate abdominal pain, genitourinary problems and other conditions,” Holmes says.
The UB team also brought eyeglasses for near-sighted and far-sighted patients.
“Our students really enjoyed seeing the smiles on patient’s faces when they realized how much better they could see,” Holmes says.
In Honduras, first-year student Patrick Salemme said many of the patients his team saw throughout the week had problems rooted in poverty — lack of transportation, cultural and language barriers and apathetic responses from the government.
For example, he says the team saw babies suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord does not develop properly.
“Spina bifida is not something that you would typically see in someone with proper prenatal care,” Salemme says. “In regions with little access to care, these diseases will develop and cause more suffering among the poor.”
Similarly, first-year student Grace Trompeter says while the team did its best to impress upon parents and children the importance of drinking water, it was also aware gaining access to clean, safe drinking water was problematic.
“Almost all of the children I examined complained of headaches, particularly when walking home from school, uphill, in the afternoon, in 100-degree heat,” she says. “Inquiring how much water they consumed, we quickly realized most of these kids were chronically dehydrated.”
In addition to providing health care, some members of the team also assisted in home repair projects in Haiti.
Holmes says students conducted fundraisers before the mission trip that helped pay for metal roofs to replace leaking thatched roofs on two homes in Fontaine and for a new roof on a one-room schoolhouse in a nearby village. Some of the students took time off from the medical mission to help Haitian workers with the repairs.
The Global Health Education Program, within the Department of Family Medicine, facilitates experiences for medical students and graduate trainees who want to work with patients in medically underserved areas of the world or with refugees in Buffalo. Holmes also oversees the department’s focused global health scholars track for select residents.