‘Medicine in its purest form’

Graduate students in the physician assistant studies master’s program recently embarked on a volunteering effort to Guatemala to deliver free medical care to families.

First-year graduate student Christie Smethurst, who organized the effort, said the experience served as much more than an opportunity to help those in need. It was also an important reminder to students of the impact of such efforts and why they work so hard to enter the medical profession.

Smethurst, MS’15, recalled that the physician who joined the Northeastern team there described the experience as “medicine in its purest form.” That message resonated with the 19 graduate students who participated.

“I thought it would be really cool for people to get a renewed perspective on life and to remember why we are doing this,” Smethurst said.

During their spring break at the end of April, the students went to the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, where they worked at a medical clinic operated by Promise Land Ministries. They saw more than 500 patients in just four days time, which also served as a valuable global experiential learning opportunity to put their classroom studies into real-world action.

“It was great to see things we learned in our program [in the classroom] be manifested in real life,” Smethurst said. “We had familiarity with some of the diseases and drugs, as well as the physical exam process and getting a patient’s history.”

The students also brought medicine with them to re-stock the clinic’s pharmacy and wrote more than 1,000 prescriptions. But their goal went beyond administering direct medical care; they also helped improve the long-term quality of life for families by constructing stoves for some residents’ homes.

Respiratory problems, Smethurst explained, are common in the part of Guatemala because families cook over open fires in their homes, which lack the proper ventilation to allow dangerous fumes to escape. “These stoves we built keep the fire contained so they aren’t openly burning, and a chimney that goes through the roof vents all the smoke out,” Smethurst said.

The students did their own fundraising for the trip and collected more than $17,000. Catherine Sadowski, an assistant clinical professor in the physician assistant studies program, even taught students important medical terms in Spanish before they traveled to Guatemala.

“The students were really enthusiastic,” Sadowski said. “I thought it would be helpful because in today world’s, especially if you are going into the medical profession, knowing some Spanish is useful.”

Smethurst said she’s hopeful that new first-year students next year can pick up where she left off and organize another trip back to Guatemala.