Clinic helps patients and volunteers alike

schandler@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2013 

When Trevor Cox and Aaron Newman went to Guatemala last summer to work in a rural maternal clinic, they weren’t just observing.

They were working directly with patients with tasks such as helping with prenatal exams, taking blood pressure, giving vaccinations and even attending births.

Their work and the training that came with it was with the Global Public Service Academy for Health, directed by Duke University engineering professor Robert Malkin.

“It just seemed to offer a lot of opportunities that really weren’t available in any sort of youth programs that you would find in the United States,” said Aaron, a senior at Enloe High School in Raleigh, of why he applied for the program. “We were able to do a lot of hands-on medical care that really wouldn’t have been an option in a more developed country.”

Spending four weeks in Guatemala, mostly in the town of Calhuitz, with Trevor and Aaron were Shantan Krovvidi, a junior at Enloe, and other high school students from around the country and even farther afield. Their mission was to get a taste of the medical field in which they’re considering careers and to do some good along the way.

In addition to their clinic work, the students also spent a lot of time talking to members of the community about how to stay healthy. They covered topics such as hand-washing, basic sanitation and family planning – and they covered them as best they could in Chuj, the local Mayan dialect that’s spoken by only about 20,000 people worldwide. Language training was included in the students’ daily class time, and translators were always on hand to fill in the gaps.

The hardest part of their time in Guatemala, Trevor and Aaron said, was the culture shock they experienced early in the trip.

“It was very emotional, just seeing the level of poverty that was there,” Aaron said. “But as I came to live in the community, and as I came to understand the people, I kind of came to realize they’re really not unhappy with what they have. They’re very satisfied with the things they have and they’re very comfortable with their living conditions.”

As a second-year participant in the program, Aaron had the additional task of coming up with a project to benefit to community. In his first summer in Guatemala, he noticed that the stoves villagers used for cooking were inefficient and produced unhealthy levels of pollution inside homes. So he combined the best elements of existing stove designs to come up with something new – and something that could be built in villagers’ homes for minimal cost and with materials readily available in the community.

“I built prototypes at my house in the months preceding the trip and tested them in my driveway. I would come in every day smelling like smoke and covered in ash,” he said, laughing. “Even in Guatemala, I was always covered in ash.”

He installed three stoves in homes last summer and left the local government with materials to build 10 more and manuals to continue the project indefinitely.

When Trevor returns to Guatemala for his second time this summer, he plans to continue Aaron’s effort to make indoor cooking less hazardous, either by building more stoves or by perfecting an idea he has for a device to stop smoke backdraft in chimneys.

Their work in Guatemala helped villagers and communities, but Aaron and Trevor said their lives were improved by it as well.

“It changed my perspective – that’s probably the biggest thing it’s brought me,” said Trevor, a senior at Panther Creek High School in Cary. “It’s just really changed my whole view on life and how I live and how I think everyone should treat others.”

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