A woman’s tooth hurt and needed to be pulled in what would be a routine procedure in the United States. But in rural Honduras, the American dentist volunteering with Global Medical Brigades would perform the extraction with no dental chair, no electricity and no licensed dental assistant.
But the dentist did have Illinois Wesleyan nursing major Collin Barr ’15. On his first day in Honduras last year as a Medical Brigades volunteer, Barr’s tasks were to prepare the local anesthetic, then position the patient’s head against his chest and hold her so she couldn’t move, preventing further damage to her gums.
“Holding a patient’s head while her teeth were extracted, in the middle of a village where the most basic things aren’t available — that’s the most vivid image I took away from Honduras,” says Barr.
Yet he couldn’t wait to return to Honduras this summer with IWU’s Medical Brigades, a chapter of Global Brigades. The organization is the largest student-led global health-care and sustainable development organization in the world. Wesleyan’s Medical and Dental Brigades set up temporary clinics in rural Honduran communities like Jalaca Talanga or Güinope where people can receive medical and dental treatment free of charge from licensed physicians and dentists who are also volunteers. The students take patients’ vital signs, obtain histories and current symptoms and participate in preventive education.
“You don’t really know the extent of poverty until you see it in a developing country,” says Barr, a native of Kankakee, Ill. Honduras is among Latin America’s poorest countries, with more than half of the population living in poverty. Basics such as access to clean water, proper oral hygiene and hand-washing practices and a nutritious diet are luxuries for the majority of the people. Yet Barr was profoundly affected by the joyful nature and thankfulness of the patients he helped. “It was just so humbling to meet these people who were lined up waiting for us, huge smiles on their faces,” says Barr.
This year, as the medical organizer for Wesleyan’s chapter, it was Barr’s job to apply to organizations such as Project C.U.R.E. and Blessings International to obtain the medical supplies needed for the Brigade. “When the people come to the Brigade, we can see them and diagnose what they have, but without the medications to treat them, they are no better off.”
Barr’s interest in health care was likely influenced by the large number of pharmacists in his family. It was not until high school, when he job-shadowed a nurse anesthetist, that he seriously considered nursing as a vocation. “Building the relationship with the patient was the real draw for me.”
When Barr was in a high school, a friend’s older sister (Jenna Frazier ’11) who attended Illinois Wesleyan took both young men on a tour. “I just fell in love with the campus,” says Barr. “It felt like a family, which is what I was used to in high school, knowing everyone in my classes.”
In IWU’s tight-knit nursing program, it’s easy to know his classmates, and Barr likes it that way. And, as a male in a program where only about nine percent of the students have a Y chromosome, it would be hard to not know Barr.
He says he has received only a few raised eyebrows from older family members regarding his decision to enter a field traditionally dominated by women. Likewise, most of his Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers have been supportive. “The guys seemed to understand right away that nursing is a rigorous program, and for the most part they have been cool.”
The rigor of the nursing program was not unexpected, but Barr says he still needed an attitude adjustment his first year. “All of us were top students in our high school classes, so at first I thought I had to be really competitive to get the top position in the class. After a while, I realized it’s more about building your own knowledge and helping one another achieve that, too.”
That knowledge is built through coursework, learning modules and clinical settings. Equally relevant, Barr says, are his experiences in the Medical Brigades, his role as house manager for TKE and his work as an admissions tour guide. “Everything we do that takes us outside of the classroom ultimately contributes to making us better nurses,” he says.
Barr also believes he will have a career edge as a liberal arts graduate. “At some schools, a nursing major just takes nursing courses. Here, our program makes you a well-rounded individual with a liberal arts degree, who is also a nurse.
“Even though Wesleyan is small, it’s very diverse, and I believe understanding different people who come from varied backgrounds will benefit me in caring for diverse patients,” he adds. “I think all the experiences I’ve had, and will continue to get, will make me a better nurse.”