Students help stock needy Belize clinics

ISU students deliver medical supplies gathered by club

By Katie List
Daily Staff Writer

Editor's note: Daily opinion editor and reporter Katie List and copy editor Anna Holland traveled to Belize during spring break as a part of the course Political Science 314: Political, Policy and Environmental Issues in Economic Development of Third World Countries: The Case of Belize. Twenty-two ISU students made the trip. This story and these photos examine one aspect of the it.

VALLEY OF PEACE, Belize -- A row of palm trees separates the tin-roofed clinic from the dirt road. Elita Herrera, the rural health nurse, pokes her head out to the front porch, where several residents wait for today's special, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary dentist offering free checkups.

But in addition to the patients, she sees a group of ISU students shuffling in from the midday Belize heat, carrying boxes and bags of medical supplies.

Valley of Peace Health Center serves almost 2,000 residents in and around the town of Valley of Peace, Belize, many of whom are Guatemalan refugees. Belize, a Central American country of 250,000 people, is known for its burgeoning tourist industry ("Temptation Island" filmed part of its show on an island off the country's sky-blue Gulf coast), but beyond the sandy beaches are inland rainforests and poverty.

"Like most Latin American countries, Belize has a problem with generating enough government revenue for public health systems and school facilities," said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science. "The tax base is very small, and income tax isn't collected very well."

So when Schmidt started arranging a trip to Belize with for his sustainable development class, he contacted Alison Lima, a founding member of the Student International Medical Aid Club at Iowa State.

The group works with study abroad trips like Schmidt's to distribute medical supplies to underserved and developing countries -- sending supplies with students is cheaper than shipping, and it also guarantees the safe arrival and distribution of sometimes fragile medicines and equipment.

It also fits well with the club's goal of educating ISU students about health issues in developing nations. Lima, senior in biology, has been collecting, counting and carting medical supplies since the club's inception in fall 2002, but the spring break trip to Belize was her first chance to distribute the donations to a clinic.

"I felt like the work I did was going to be useful," Lima said. "The first clinic we visited [Valley of Peace] was in really bad condition."

Only two people work at the five-room wooden clinic -- Herrera, and a Cuban doctor. Herrera has been there for more than two years, and is straightforward about the facility's lack of supplies. Valley of Peace Medical Center is a government clinic, but a lot of medicine comes from donations from St. Luke's College in Belmopan, Belize's capital.

"The government will give us a month's supply that will run out in a week," Herrera said.

The clinic functions as a catch-all for rural health problems -- "Outpatient clinic, family planning, wound dressing, emergencies and minor surgeries, sutures, bandages, antibiotics ..." Herrera said.

The storage room, however, is almost bare -- a couple boxes of bandages, a cardboard box of painkillers and antibiotics.

Organizing

"Every county hospital in the state of Iowa has outdated supplies they have to get rid of at the end of each month," said Nancy Guthrie, adviser to Student International Medical Aid Club and program coordinator for International Education Services. "They aren't allowed to use them, so they usually give them to veterinarians."

 

Guthrie pulls a small bottle out of a recently donated box of supplies from Story County Hospital. It's an injectable antibiotic.

"As long as it's clear in the bottle, not clouded, it's OK," Guthrie said.

Most medicines collected are good for up to six months after the expiration date, she said.

When the Medical Aid Club started in fall 2002, the members sifted through phone books for contact information for local pharmacies, hospitals, clinics and doctors, creating a list of potential donors. They wanted to collect supplies locally, emphasizing the Iowa connection to developing countries.

The first big project was a summer 2003 study abroad trip to Bolivia. They collected more than $20,000 worth of supplies from local hospitals and clinics.

"We had stuff we couldn't accept," Lima said. "Someone wanted to donate a hospital bed."

Club members keep spreadsheets detailing the name and dollar value of donations, and store the supplies wherever they can find a free corner -- whether it's club president Kristin Mawk's house or Guthrie's study abroad office.

The supplies for the Bolivia trip were stored and painstakingly inventoried in Isak Goodwin's basement. Goodwin, a Dartmouth alumnus, had volunteered at a rural hospital in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for six months in 2001. After moving to Iowa, Goodwin said he wanted to continue gathering medical supplies for donation to international clinics. Before his original trip to Bolivia, he collected 300 pounds of donations to take with him.

"When I arrived in Bolivia, I realized exactly how needed such basic medical equipment as syringes and exam gloves could be," he said.

He sent out a message in the pre-medical student newsletter at Iowa State about starting an international medical aid club. Guthrie and Lima were at the first meeting, where Goodwin gave a slide show about his experiences in Bolivia.

By summer 2003, Guthrie and the students in her study abroad trip to Bolivia were lugging massive black duffel bags through international airports, full of scalpels, antibiotics, gloves and other supplies. Each student had a carefully inventoried list to show to the customs agents at the airport in La Paz, Bolivia, if asked. They donated the supplies to a hospital in El Alto.

Lima said she estimates the spring break trip to Belize brought at least $2,000 worth of medical supplies to the country, carefully packed next to journals and warm-weather clothes.

"We want to involve more Iowa State students as the club grows," Lima said. "More Iowa State involvement means more education, more supplies and more connections."

For more information and future trips to Belize please contact Dr. Steffen Schmidt, sws@iastate.edu, Fax 515 294 1003, Phone 515 294 3825

The town of San Pedro where the group
delivered medical supplies.