To improve the lives of people in rural Honduras, Meaghan Mormann ’16 served four
IWU Global Brigades. She writes how her experiences changed how she sees the world.
(From IWU Magazine, Summer 2016)
Story by MEAGHAN MORMANN ’16
In the tiny community of Las Animas (pop. 120), located five hours outside of the
capital city of Tegucigalpa, hundreds of parasol-bearing Hondurans eagerly await the
arrival of a busload of Illinois Wesleyan students and several physicians in the almost
unbearable morning heat. As quickly as possible, we convert a five-room school into
a temporary medical clinic and ready ourselves for the steady stream of underserved
patients we will meet over the next nine hours.
Dr. Liza Pilch is one of our physicians, and I am her translator. Our morning routine
is interrupted by a shout: “There’s blood! We need a doctor and a translator!” Dr.
Pilch stands, takes my arm and pulls me outside. In the courtyard, a young man, perhaps
25 years old, leans against the post of a small pavilion. A t-shirt tied tightly around
his calf, he appears surprisingly calm. His friend and his wife tell us he’d hit his
foot with the full-force swing of a machete while chopping firewood. His friend half-carried
him to the brigade site, nearly two hours from the scene of the accident.
With a first glance I can’t see where the wound begins or ends. What I can make out,
however, is his bone — white and glistening, jutting out of the top of his foot —
clearly severed and surrounded by dust-covered skin and muscle. He had already lost
about three pints of blood. Without the t-shirt tourniquet, his situation would be
much worse. A team of physicians, nurses, even dentists start an IV of fluids, antibiotics
and pain medications. They sanitize, clean and close the wound, then stabilize his
foot and blood pressure in preparation for transport to the nearest hospital, over
two hours away.
While days spent with Global Brigades (GB) are rarely this high stress, the stark reality of lack of access to basic services
and makes dire situations such as this one a constant possibility.
Of GB’s nine established brigades (business, dental, engineering, environmental, human
rights, medical, microfinance, public health and water), IWU students have participated
in dental and medical brigades for several years. In December 2015 our first business
brigade went to Honduras, and this June our first ever medical–public health hybrid
brigade treated hundreds and built basic health facilities for three families.
I have been on brigades with as few as 22 IWU students and as many as 50. GB commonly
attracts biology majors, including many on the pre-med track, but I have also served
with students majoring in chemistry, English, business and many other disciplines.
Of our brigade members who travelled this year, many were inspired on their first
trip, a large number were returning for their second or third years and four of us
were completing our fourth brigade.
With the exception of our chapter advisor, Assistant Professor of Nursing Noël Kerr,
the group is entirely student run. Students pay to attend each brigade (approximately
$1,500), and are also responsible for organizing each trip — work that begins a year
in advance with recruiting healthcare professionals (each brigade needs a minimum
of two general practice physicians, two dentists and, ideally, an OB/GYN) and raising
funds for the purchase of medical and pharmaceutical supplies.
When all the logistics and a million other details have been sorted out and checked
off our list, the brigade finally assembles at the airport for the flight to Honduras.
Upon arrival, the first day involves a community visit to an area in rural Honduras
where GB is active. For our new students, this is likely the first time they have
encountered the stark reality of life in a place where four in 10 people do not have
access to clean water, and more than half live on less than one U.S. dollar per day.
Such sterile statistics don’t reveal the warmth of the people, who open their homes
to us with the utmost humility and hospitality, offering bowls of fruit, tea, coffee
or anything else they have to share. In all of my visits to Honduras, I have been
moved by the spirit of faith, love and joy with which the people conduct their daily
lives, despite enduring hardships most of us in the United States can barely imagine.
The brigade runs like this: after being checked in at the community volunteers’ intake
station, patients move to the triage station, manned by students, GB personnel and
translators. Triage is often a favorite station of students, whether or not they speak
Spanish, because it is a phenomenal learning opportunity. Here, students take vital
signs and have the opportunity to practice their language and patient-interview skills.
After the triage station, patients are either helped immediately by medical professionals
or passed to the line for general consult, depending on the severity of their condition.
We faced a number of ulcerous wounds this year, which are surprisingly common in Honduras,
especially on the lower extremities, due to lack of proper footwear and access to
medical care. Luckily for us, Dr. Kerr is also a specialist in wound care and has
traveled with us on each of my four brigades.
In her work with wound patients, Dr. Kerr teaches them how to dress their various
kinds of wounds while ensuring they understand their condition and have the supplies
necessary to heal. At the same time, she gets students involved in these patient encounters,
giving them an equally enriching opportunity to learn.
When the IWU Global Brigade brings physicians who are English-speaking, a student
works closely with them as their translator — a job I held for three of my four brigades.
An additional two to three students will shadow each physician. These doctors have
consistently been phenomenal teachers, not only through imparting medical knowledge
but in sharing the sensitivity and skills necessary to work with patients of another
culture, perhaps of a different first language, and who may have never previously
interacted with a medical professional.
As students assess patients’ medical problems they also learn the cultural context
in which some of those problems arise. At the triage station, students take vital
signs and ask a list of questions, including asking females as young as age 12 whether
they are pregnant or breastfeeding. This question often comes as a shock to students
accustomed to the U.S. cultural norms surrounding childbirth. Honduras’ predominantly
Catholic and patriarchal culture makes many contraceptive methods frowned upon and,
therefore, increases the likelihood very young women may already be pregnant or mothers.
Specific aspects of the culture of Honduras — and, indeed, much of Central America
— can be explained in the context of masculine and feminine ideals. The male role
is machismo; the notion that men are strong and powerful providers and protectors. This means
men are generally incredibly devoted to family, loyal to a fault and hard workers.
However, this ideal can also perpetuate a power hierarchy that places men in an emotionally,
physically and sexually dominant role. In contrast, marianismo defines the role of the female who is pure, maternal, obedient and submissive. This
results in women who spend the majority of their lives within the home and raising
the family’s children. However, the double standard of being both pure and submissive
results in illegal abortions, young girls who are already mothers and the scarce availability
of birth control, prenatal care and gynecological exams.
I have experienced these prescribed gender roles firsthand in dealing with patients,
such as an older gentleman who refused to let me translate between the male physician
and himself. I realized his refusal was deeply rooted in cultural practices that had
been a reality for this patient’s entire life. It was much more important for this
man to receive medical care in an atmosphere in which he was comfortable than for
me to take his cultural views personally and ruin the possibility of him developing
a trusting physician–patient relationship. I ultimately found a male GB translator
to aid in the completion of this patient consult.
Justin Bieber in the mix
At any moment, the work of a Global Brigade can change a life. I witnessed one such
event during a shift at the optometry station, where students perform basic eye tests
and, when needed, find appropriate glasses among a variety of donated prescription
pairs. A boy, accompanied by his mother, told me he couldn’t see the chalkboard at
his school. An eye test showed his vision was far worse than 20/200. While we didn’t
have a pair of glasses with a prescription as severe as his, we found one that was
fairly close. As the boy put them on, his face immediately lit up. With each line
on the eye chart he was able to read, my heart filled with greater joy — a feeling
shared by his mother, who wept as she expressed her gratitude to us.
Many patients’ problems are not so easily resolved. Changing lives can also mean changing
habits through discussion with our patients. After all consults, adults go to an adult
charla and children go to a kid’s charla. Translating literally to “chat,” in this situation charla refers to a conversational class all patients are required to attend.
The adult charla is run by the community volunteers to ensure positive communication, trust and complete
understanding by all involved. This class is usually centered on some aspect of sexual
health such as STDs and STIs or birth control and family planning methods.
The kids’ charla, run exclusively by GB students, is always a dental one. Students have discovered
that songs grab attention and help the kids recall the lessons. Each year we take
a popular tune and rewrite verses in Spanish to teach kids how to brush their teeth.
For the past two years, we have used our own rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” with
new verses in Spanish. The lyrics include: “Cepillamos en circulo-os,/En el frente y en el fondo/Para sonrisas más bonitas/No
olvides la lengua.” (Translation: “We brush our teeth in circles/In the front and in the back/For more
beautiful smiles/Don’t forget your tongue.”)
Even when a clinic is over, the GB mission continues. Data informatics acquired by
each brigade details each patient’s visit. This data is compiled and analyzed to reveal
an area’s common health problems and trends, allowing a determination of which brigades
should follow up with assistance. For example, in areas where illness from contaminated
water is common, water and engineering brigades are sent to design and install water-carrying
For the first time, IWU students participated in a joint medical–public health brigade
this spring. Public health brigades identify families who want to work with GB and
local Honduran masons to improve their living conditions. GB pours concrete to replace
dirt floors, a source of parasite infections acquired through bare feet. Eco stoves
are built that require less wood and properly ventilate homes. Hygiene stations are
added to provide clean-water accessibility and privacy for personal hygiene. Such
changes decrease the risk of many medical issues and make aspects of life simpler,
such as no longer having to walk miles to collect still-contaminated water.
One of three families for whom our brigade completed projects, a couple in their 90s,
repeatedly thanked us for coming and reminded us that everyone on this planet is equal
and that we are all brothers and sisters. They insisted on blessing each of us individually
before we departed for home.
An alliance of understanding
I do indeed feel blessed having had Global Brigades be part of my IWU experience.
GB helped fulfill goals I’ve had since the age of 4, carrying around my toy doctor’s
kit, adorned with Scooby Doo characters. Part of my decision to attend Illinois Wesleyan was based on knowing
that I could both study Spanish and biology while following the pre-medical program,
and I also wanted to seek out opportunities to grow throughout my collegiate journey.
I remember searching through an online list of student organizations and finding a
brief description of GB. I felt instantly drawn to it as a way to engage my passions
for healthcare and for the Spanish language and its associated cultures. Among the
most appealing aspects of Global Brigades is the opportunity it gives students to
broaden their personal beliefs and perspectives by engaging in a culture very different
from that to which we are accustomed. This is the liberal arts in action.
In each of my Spanish, general education and science courses, professors encouraged the liberal arts mindset of fostering creativity,
effective cross-cultural communication, critical thinking, a spirit of inquiry and
a perpetual desire to learn in ways beyond traditional classroom knowledge acquisition.
By presenting us with cultures, norms, languages, socioeconomic statuses and so much
more that is different from our own way of living, the GB trips to Honduras provide us with the opportunities to challenge
ourselves, enrich and further personal growth and reinforce the aspects of the liberal
arts education that are so importantly stressed in our coursework.
In Honduras, not only is medical care often a great physical distance from the individuals
who require it, but care and prophylactic infrastructure is so expensive and unobtainable
to the average citizen that it is not even a consideration when health issues arise.
Such dilemmas illuminate the great divide between ideal health care and the reality
faced by so many people around the world.
Such disparity demands innovation to eliminate the ever-prominent scarcities that
exist in worldwide medical access. It requires a combination of linguistic, cultural
and scientific knowledge to lead our society and others to a more inclusive and understanding
approach to medicine. Through work with GB, students have become part of an alliance
that has a mutual understanding of today’s world and a common desire to maintain and
respect its diversity. In my opinion, this is why so many of us keep going back.
Through Global Brigades, Honduras opens its doors to students and enables us to see
its beauty and its vulnerabilities in a fashion that encourages us to grow individually
and as a group while also striving to eliminate the related and seemingly entrenched
biases that inhibit the flourishing of our ever-changing world. That is one of the
most precious gifts I have ever received.
About the author: A Hispanic Studies and biology double major following the pre-med program, Meaghan
Mormann ’16 was involved with biochemical research with Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Melinda Baur and research on avian eggshell fragments with biology faculty Given Harper
and William Jaeckle. In addition to serving on four Global Brigades to Honduras, she
also assisted as a translator for the McLean County Health Department’s WIC program.
A member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, Mormann won the 2016
Technos International Prize, recognizing a student who has excelled academically and contributed to broadening international awareness and understanding.
This fall, she begins medical school at Michigan State’s College of Human Medicine and will enroll in the school’s Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved certificate