In the corner of a small white church in Las Mangas, Nicaragua, Aliyah Morphis ’17 is observing and waiting. Already sweating through her navy blue scrubs, she hands a doctor a flashlight so he can better see in the mouth of an 11-year old girl. Grabbing a pair of pliers, he tugs at a tooth and the girl’s face scrunches, no antiseptic to calm the pain.
“Initially, I was just rubbing her arm,” Morphis recalls, “I offered to hold her hand—she gripped it.”
For Morphis and other Global Medical Brigades volunteers, helping starts with listening. What do you need? How can I best help? The children of Las Mangas needed dental care, so Morphis and her 29 fellow Santa Clara classmates set up small makeshift dentist offices—dentist chairs cordoned off by hanging tarps in large rooms—to provide treatment the children couldn’t receive in their town.
“We aren’t realistically saving the world in one week,” says Morphis, a psychology and public health major. “What you do in one week, yes it has an impact, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. We just made it easier.”
Global Medical Brigades, one of the world’s largest student-led global health programs, helps students provide relief in places of limited health care. Under the leadership of Morphis, the chapter president, Santa Clara’s chapter raised $61,450 to fund their Spring Break trip to Nicaragua, where they implemented dental health and sexual education programs.
When Morphis first traveled to Nicaragua with the brigade in 2015, she thought she was prepared for the poverty she’d witness—she grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Oakland and had traveled to countries like El Salvador and Mexico. Once there, however, she realized Nicaragua is the world’s second poorest country, next to Haiti.
“It’s difficult to know that you only have one week,” Morphis recalls, “You want to maximize that time and help out but then you have to look at what they need most.”
The trips to Nicaragua are about providing accessibility. It’s not that healthcare doesn’t exist in the country, in fact it’s free. But the nearest hospital is often hours away, forcing people to arrange travel far in advance.
“Instead of having to travel miles and miles by bus or whatever it may be, they were able to access these resources,” Morphis says. “Whether it be, ‘My kid just wanted to access a toothbrush’ or ‘I just needed a checkup’.”
In treatment areas, students cycled between stations, taking patient vitals in triage, shadowing doctors in consultations, assisting licensed pharmacists in prescriptions, and assembling electronic records.
With majors ranging from biology to marketing, only seven members of the group actually spoke Spanish. Despite language barriers and differing levels of public health knowledge, the group served a total of 913 patients in the first three days alone.
“We learned to be comfortable with discomfort,” Morphis said, “Knowing not every moment was going to be smooth and accepting that I have no idea what [a child patient] is saying but I’m going to smile and continue to play paddy cake. With adults, they are so appreciative that we are even there, so a lot of students found it easy to connect even though it was difficult to communicate.”
Though Santa Clara’s chapter only provided aid for a short time, Global Medical Brigades will be back and has planted seeds of volunteerism among its students.
After graduating in the spring, Morphis hopes to pursue a career in health care as a nurse practitioner and work in multi-racial and impoverished communities. For now, she works at LinkedIn and looks forward to using her position to promote the greater good.
“I took away more than I left behind,” Morphis says. “For me, that’s the whole point. It’s awesome to contribute, but if you don’t grow as a person there is no point. … I think my passion for social justice has only strengthened. I just don’t see the purpose of a career if you aren’t going to have a positive impact. ”