This is World Health Workers Week (April 8-12), so it seems a perfect time to run this profile of Lindsay Southgate, who went as a volunteer with Global Brigades to Panama, and found it to be such a powerful experience, she then went on another service trip with the organization, this time as a Co-President/group leader, to Ghana.
Global Brigades works internationally to resolve global health and economic disparities by empowering student volunteers, local professionals, and community members in a collaborative holistic approach to sustainable development. Their vision is “To improve equality of life by igniting the largest student-led social responsibility movement on the planet.”
Lindsay explains so thoroughly what the experience was like for her–I hope it inspires you as much as it does me…I lover her attitude of basically saying: This was pretty daunting, but that’s what it took, so that’s what I did. What choice did I have, there was no alternative to changing people’s lives, so I did whatever it took (my interpretation/words, not Lindsay’s)
Tell me a little bit about what you did on your two trips with Global Brigades. What possessed you? There must have been easier vacations to take—why this?
On my two trips with Global Brigades, I traveled to Ghana and Panama. I got involved with GB through a roommate. She is a nursing major and the nursing program initiated the GB San Diego State University branch. After learning about the Panama trip I applied and got in. It was unfortunate because my roommate who informed me about the trip did not get chosen in the raffle for Panama, but fortunately she did come to Ghana. My interest was sparked because I had recently been to a pre-medical conference that suggested students get international experience. Of course, as a premed, we do everything we think we need in order to get into medical school. Prior to learning about the Panama trip I decided that I would not go abroad because it was too expensive, and not realistic for me at that time. Once I decided to get involved with the Panama trip it became more than just another check mark on the list. It became a passion to raise enough money to get the opportunity to travel far and help such deserving people. (more after the jump)
In Panama, we started the trip by doing door-to-door visits and learning more about the community. The community was one hour away from the compound and the compound was about three hours away from the city. Our community was receiving a brigade for the first time so it took some time for them to feel comfortable with newcomers in their village. Eventually they warmed up to us, and some of the children even begged to go back to America with us. Every night we would sort medications into little baggies with hand-made labels. The next day we built the clinic in front of their community center using large bamboo shafts and thin plastic tablecloths. It was definitely a shabby little deal, but it worked to create privacy for the patients. For our 4 clinic days we had 4 physicians, 2 dentists, 1 OBGYN nurse, and 1 pharmacist. We saw about 550 [patients] in those four days and people traveled from hours and miles away. The thought of walking for 10 hours throughout the night with your children is mind blowing. On our last day we got to see the Panama Canal and walk around in Panama City.
In Ghana, we had many flights to get the whole group in. We started the trip by sorting medications and waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. The first day in the village was opening ceremony where the community welcomed us. GB has different branches including medical, dental, water, engineering, law, etc. This community had previously had medical brigades so they knew what to expect from us, at least more so than the Panamanians. The next day we did a similar door-to-door visit like we did in Panama. The biggest difference was the language barrier. In Panama, although we did not speak fluent Spanish, most of us could at least follow the conversation or say enough to help them understand. In Ghana, they speak Fante, a language that resembles nothing I have ever heard. We had translators with us, but there were sill difficulties if they could not understand us or did not know the translation. After the house visits we had the clinic days. Similar to Panama we had 4 clinic days, but this time we were provided with a schoolhouse with multiple rooms to turn into the clinic. We had 4 physicians, 1 dentist, 3 OBGYN nurses, and 1 pharmacist. We saw about 750 patients in the 4 days and worked much longer days. After the 4 clinic days we had a closing ceremony of our own where the chief blessed us with a gift of many fruits, sugar cane, and other food items that are valuable in their community. The last day we visited a rain forest and the Cape Coast slave castle.
What role do volunteers play in this work? Are special skills required?
The volunteers run the clinic. Most of the volunteers are students so there is no special knowledge or skill required. Fortunately, since many of the students are nursing students, they already know how to take blood pressure and other vital signs, and can teach the other students. There are typically a few students who have been on previous brigades so they can help get everything set up and running smoothly as well.
What obstacles along the way almost stopped you?
For Panama the biggest obstacle was the money. It cost a total of $1,640.00 for a seven-day trip. I was successfully able to raise all of it with the support of family and friends, but it was definitely a long road and a challenge. I did not have any reserves about traveling to Panama until 2 days before we were scheduled to depart. That was when I realized that I was going thousands of miles away with a group of people that I didn’t know, and I had no idea where I would be staying or what I would be eating. Because I am a premed and not a nursing student I did not know most of the students. Fortunately, I am good at making friends in new situations so I fell right into the group as soon as we met at the airport, and the group was great.
For Ghana, there were many obstacles. First, the price was almost double that of the Panama trip. Again with the support of family and friends I was able to raise the money, but I definitely invested more of my own money into the trip as well. Along with the money is the time. Because I was planning the trip I was spending approximately 2 hours per night sending emails, making phone calls, and organizing fundraiser events. The other obstacles besides time and money included learning how to work with difficult co-leaders, and raising the $10,000 for the medications. It was one of those situations where I still do not know how we pulled it off. Between booking flights at the last minute, purchasing medications last minute, and ordering Visas to arrive the day before departure, we are so fortunate that everything fell into place. That is when you know that you were really meant to go.
When pulling it all together, have family and friends supported you or did they think you were nuts?
Overall, my family and friends were very supportive of my goals with Global Brigades. I definitely received a lot of hesitation, especially from close family members, concerning my safety during the brigades, but they still supported me. Some people are confused as to why we don’t just help people that are down the street, such as the homeless, but what they do not understand is that once you go on a brigade you want to do more. The experience of being around a totally different culture and stepping out of your comfort zone is exhilarating. There are millions of people in San Diego and Los Angeles who could help the less fortunate people down the road, but not everyone is willing to fly half way around the world. So yes, some think I am nuts.
Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later? What were you doing before this? Did you forge your own path or are you shaping your world along the same lines as a family member, mentor, etc?
I would like to think that my upbringing had something to do with where I am in life, including my experiences with GB. My parents have always pushed me to strive for success and supported me in everything I have tried. I was raised attending a Christian church and participated in many church activities including choir through high school. My grandmother pushed me to join the Assistance League, which is a large volunteer organization that has a branch for high school girls. That was the biggest form of volunteering that I did previous to GB. I would say that I forged my own path because although I have had many mentors, none of them are involved in the same type of activities that I have done. Many of my family members are important role models for me, but everyone has a different path.
Any advice for others wanting to create a way to be of service or provide a structure (for others) for charitable work?
My advice for others wanting to create this type of charitable work is to just do it. It can be difficult and discouraging and there can be many obstacles, but it is never going to happen unless you make it happen. It is so worth it to experience traveling to another country and helping people less fortunate than you. For runners, it’s like running a marathon (or half-marathon like me), once you cross the finish line you want to rest, train, and do it again despite the pain you feel immediately after the race. I thought I would run just the one, and now I have done 6. No matter how many people call you crazy for putting yourself through stress and financial burdens, they can never understand the feeling of success until they complete it themselves.
While there won’t ever be a standard, what is an example of a particular day like for a volunteer with Global Brigades?
Global Brigades tries to teach students about the culture, so there are clinic days as well as community days. Part of the plan with GB is to create sustainability, and it is easier for students to brainstorm ideas once they have sat down with the community members and heard their problems first-hand. A typical community day is to go into the village and break up into smaller groups. With a translator, the group of 3 or 4 students will go into different homes and interview the villagers. This goes on for a few hours and the students can spend the whole time in one home, or move from home to home. A typical clinic day starts at 7am for breakfast, a one hour bus ride from 8-9am, setting up the clinic from 9-10am, and then running the clinic until all the patients have been seen (usually between 2 and 4), and finally clean up. The clinic has 6 stations including triage, physician consultation, dental, OB/GYN, pharmacy, and patient education. The students break up between the stations and trade places each clinic day to experience the different levels of patient interaction.
In Ghana, we also had a data entry station where all of the information from the patients was entered into a system so that GB can learn which medications and patient types they are seeing for that specific community.
Is there an ideal volunteer for the group? What attitudes or mindset will help?
An ideal volunteer would be someone who is open minded to the new community, yearning to learn, and happy to be there. The best volunteers I have worked with are usually students who are interested in the field of medicine and are excited to learn from first-hand experience. They are happy to be volunteering and you would never guess that they are paying thousands of dollars to go work. Another great mindset for any type of volunteer brigade is to go in without expectations. That is usually a challenge for most people, but if you can bring yourself to have a 100% open mind it makes for an amazing experience for both the volunteers and the community members.
If not this, what might you be doing?
This is a unique experience. I would not have been ambitious enough to seek out an organization like GB if it had not been dropped in my lap. I am so glad it did because if I did not participate with GB I would probably just continue to volunteer locally for people who are less fortunate, but not necessarily living in poverty like the patients we treated in Panama and Ghana. There is another group called the Flying Samaritans on campus, and they travel to Mexico on day trips to provide medical care in poor cities. That is another possible organization that I may have become involved with.
What has been the best reward for the work you do? Any particular stories?
The best reward for the work I have done in Panama and Ghana is the reactions of the people. Showing up at 9am and discovering that patients have been lined up since 3am is an incredible feeling. Driving toward the village and seeing huge smiling faces waving at the bus and jumping up and down, and children running to follow the bus into the village makes you feel like you are creating an unforgettable difference in these peoples’ lives.
Of course I have tons of stories, but I will mention one that really stood out to me.
On the last clinic day in Panama, an elderly woman (I believe she was 89) who was the oldest member of the community, came through the clinic. Although she had bruises all about her nose and under her eyes from a fall, she did not complain of pain, she complained of depression. Now unfortunately, we cannot prescribe anti-depressants, we can only write referrals to a psychiatrist. It is unlikely that the villagers would be willing to find a ride for this woman to go seek therapy, so really the only thing we can do for her is comfort her. We realized that this woman just wanted some positive attention. People started taking photos with her because she was less than 5 feet tall. Her face lit up and she was so excited to feel like a celebrity who everyone wanted to meet and talk to. That was when I learned that sometimes medicine does not come in the form of a pill.
What is your earliest memory of volunteering to do something for someone else or something else?
My earliest memories of volunteering would probably be through my church. I remember being involved in fundraisers for school and church from the time I was a kid. I also volunteered for an organization called the Assistance League for five years including high school. I earned over 1,000 hours volunteering at various community centers from hospitals, to local soup kitchens, to community concert events, and much more. Those are my strongest early memories of volunteering. I especially remember feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving one year, and that was probably the closet rewarding feeling to my travels with GB.
The next step for me is taking the MCAT and applying to medical school. I hope to attend medical school starting in the fall of 2014. Once I become a doctor, I hope to volunteer on brigades as a physician. I am also currently volunteering for Sharp Hospice Care in San Diego.