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Nursing in Honduras

Poverty, prescriptions and prevention: Longwood nursing class tackles health care in Honduran villages

The classroom for Longwood University's newest course consists of remote, mountainous villages in Honduras with no electricity or running water. Horses and mules provide transportation, and health care is a visit every six months to a basic health clinic.

It is at these clinics that Longwood nursing students take Special Topics in Nursing 495. The 1-credit course, offered for the first time in early June, was developed through the nursing program's involvement in a medical mission trip to what is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The course was initiated by Hadley Sporbert, instructor in the nursing program, who is the lead instructor, and Patti Wagner, a clinical nurse in Longwood's Student Health and Wellness Center who for more than a decade has participated in a medical mission coordinated by the Richmond-based Friends of Barnabas Foundation (FOBF). Sporbert first became interested in this annual mission after accompanying Wagner in June 2011, which she said left an "indelible mark" on her.

April Shular listens to a girl's heart to check for possible heart defects.

When Sporbert and Wagner returned to Honduras this year, they were joined by two rising seniors in the nursing program, Kelli Baker and Melissa Nagle, who were the first students in the course. Neither had previously been outside the United States. The 15-member volunteer team also included one of Sporbert's colleagues on the nursing faculty, April Shular.

"I loved it, especially the intimate interactions with patients," said Shular, who, like Sporbert last year, was participating in her first medical mission. "This was an eye-opening experience."

Students have to be accepted into the course, which this year involved being interviewed by Wagner and the team's other co-leader, Bill Hogan. The course may be expanded to include similar experiences in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

"We hope to develop a course that can be applied to all three sites," said Dr. Melody Eaton, director of the nursing program. "This is a great opportunity for our students to really experience different cultures and communities."

In the mission, volunteer teams provide basic medical care in five remote mountain villages in central Honduras over a five-day period. The sites have been selected ahead of time from among 18 rotating villages that are visited every six months for three years. From a base camp maintained by the FOBF in a town called Peña Blanca, the teams travel every day in an old school bus to each of the sites, which are set up in elementary schools. At each site, where they spend about six hours, the volunteers set up various clinics, including a medical clinic, a de-worming clinic, a visual screening clinic and a clinic in which they paint fluoride on children's teeth.

"It was important for the students to see community health in action and to understand the importance of basic health education on a population," said Wagner, who, like Sporbert and Shular, is a registered nurse. "The focus of these trips is increasingly on health education and basic health maintenance-things like clean water and garbage control. We're more interested now in education and in villages being more involved in their health, as opposed to a band-aid approach. We've seen a big improvement in the villages we visit."

The Longwood team saw a total of 1,099 patients this year, including more than 800 at the medical clinics.

Among the common health issues in these villages are respiratory ailments; malnourishment, anemia, parasitic infections and ear infections in children; and gastrointestinal problems such as acid reflux and upset stomachs. "A lot of these things are easily treatable," said Sporbert, attributing some of the health problems to poor hygiene. Because the team also sees poor dental care, they provided one toothbrush per person per household (only one toothbrush per family last year), as well as cloth diapers, flip-flops and hand soap. These items came from donations from local churches, businesses and the Prince Edward County Volunteer Rescue Squad.

"This is six hours of acute care and holistic family assessment," Sporbert said. "For these students, it's important to connect the dots from diagnosis to treatment. This experience adds a wealth of knowledge to what they may never get otherwise."

The experience also gives nursing students valuable cultural exposure, Wagner said. "The world is getting smaller and smaller. There's a higher chance that they'll be exposed to someone from another culture, another language, someone of poorer health. How the nurse responds to someone from a different culture will become even more important in the future."

Sporbert said the people they treat are very grateful.

"The more I go, the more I wish that as a nursing student I could have had an experience like this partnership. It's a life-changer."

Learn more about Longwood's Nursing Program