Middletown, Connecticut and Sayaxche, Guatemala are 3,249 miles apart. Driving between them would take two days and six hours, nonstop. And yet a partnership thrives between Middlesex Hospital and Sayaxche Hospital, and a student group helps traverse the distance.
Students for Sayaxche partners with both hospitals to bring information and supplies to medical professionals working to improve healthcare in the Peten region of northern Guatemala. After the group’s yearlong hiatus, leader Ty Kelly ’14 hopes it can make a difference for both sides of the collaboration.
“It’s our first real reboot,” said Kelly. “Our most recent meeting had 14 or 15 kids who are interested. It’s gone beyond my wildest dreams.”
Kelly is a Neuroscience and Science in Society double major who will take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) later this year, which is the only reason he won’t travel down to Guatemala as part of the annual pilgrimage of Middlesex clinicians. With this background, he hopes to pursue a future in global public health and medicine, a dream that was confirmed by his time studying abroad in South Africa.
“Cape Town is a wildly fascinating city,” Kelly said. “One side of a road will be in total poverty, and the other side will have so much wealth. South Africa was the public health ground zero, essentially.”
There is certainly a need for public health advocacy in Sayaxche. Kelly explained that much of the student
group’s work involves making instructional videos for healthcare providers in Guatemala. Information about treating trauma patients is especially crucial.
“There’s a need for better techniques to support trauma patients over long distances,” Kelly said. “The Sayaxche hospital is much different than what we might imagine. When [the hospital is] too busy, there are women in labor on cots or on the ground. Small things like mattresses, breathing tubes, and blood pressure pumps make a huge difference.”
Although many Students for Sayaxche members are interested in medicine, some are not. Kelly stressed that the group’s scope goes beyond the medical.
“We want to help on a grander scale than medical supplies,” he said. “As far as traveling goes, we think it’s important to bear witness and treat it as a cultural immersion to see how other cultures perceive hospitals, medicine, health, illness, and sickness.”
Steffani Campbell ’12, who led the group during her time at the University and will attend medical school next year, is interested in both medicine and cultural immersion. She spent seven months after graduation in Guatemala working alongside Middlesex and Sayaxche doctors in clinics and community hospitals.
“I was so appreciative that they were all willing to take me in and let me be involved,” Campbell said. “I had some experience shadowing doctors before, but there I got to be more involved in caring for patients and saw what the scope of practice is for different kinds of doctors.”
However, being a foreigner came with its own challenges, and Campbell was careful not to overstep her cultural bounds.
“The first thing I did was to find out what the lowest level nurse was, buy that uniform, and wear it,” she said. “There’s an assumption that, being from northern America, you know more, but that’s not true—the nurses there knew infinitely more than I did.”
According to Kelly, Students for Sayaxche is centered on learning and action; consequently, fundraising has not been a priority.
“We try to stay away from the group model type,” Kelly said. “Fundraising is important because we need money to ship and buy supplies, but we’re focused on not being an organization of just fundraisers or documentary-showers. We’re an organization of doers, where students who are involved in the partnership learn what it actually means to be a public health advocate instead of just sending a check.”
However, one of the group’s central projects does require money: the spring trip to Guatemala, which Kelly hopes will be a mainstay of the program in years to come. Currently, students must finance their own trips. For those unable to go, Kelly says he feels it is possible to take direct action even thousands of miles away.
“My favorite part has been the doing,” he said. “I’ve been in other groups before where it’s easy to get lost in the woodwork, where you’re not an important part of what you’re doing. Work goes unnoticed. It’s been great for me and others to sink our teeth into a project and tackle it head-on.”
Campbell stressed that learning can and should be its own goal.
“It’s okay that this isn’t Habitat for Humanity, where you have this product being created,” she said. “It’s valuable to gain an understanding of the way other people practice healthcare, especially as someone who’s aspiring to be in that field.”
Moreover, Campbell explained, deep understanding takes time.
“One of the things I realized in Guatemala is that when you go into another culture for less than a year or two, you’re going to be a learner first,” she said. “You need to embrace that. I felt guilty that they were investing all of this money in me, and I wasn’t producing anything. There’s the idea of volunteering as appearing in a third-world country and being helpful because you’re from the United States. I had to own the fact that I am the product—it’s not the hospital that gets built, or the 20 babies that are born. I can be an educator now, help in a more mindful way, and be able to contribute in the future.”
In the immediate future, Kelly’s hopes for Students for Sayaxche are modest, but his long-term vision is one of enduring progress.
“I would love it if our work could result in lasting changes for the hospital and the community,” he said. “That would be exciting.”
For Campbell, the future holds other trips to Guatemala.
“I want to go back there before medical school,” she said. “It’s kind of addicting. Medicine there is still about caring for people—so much more than we’re able to do here. Here, it’s a lot of paperwork and watching your back. But there, it’s so much more about the patients. Their model is going to be what keeps me interested in practicing medicine.”