By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – With its white sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush rainforest, Bocas del Toro is one of the most beautiful regions in Panama.
Tourists from around the world visit the province each year to explore this biodiverse area and its unique marine ecosystem.
For many of the people who call Bocas del Toro home, though, life isn’t nearly as glamorous as the resorts and hotels suggest. It’s also one of the poorest regions in Panama, a place where basic medical care is often inaccessible for residents.
To address this issue, 18 current and former students from the University of Nebraska at Kearney recently traveled to the Central American country. These Lopers – all future health care professionals – spent two weeks in Bocas del Toro as part of a medical outreach program.
UNK junior Daylee Dey called the trip a “life-changing experience.”
“It really opens your eyes to other parts of the world and makes you feel more grateful for what we have here,” said Dey, a communication disorders major from Gresham. “We can all kind of get caught up in our own lives and our own struggles, but in reality there are people across the world who are facing far greater challenges.”
Dey served as the team leader for the trip, which was organized through the UNK chapter of VAW Global Health Alliances, a humanitarian organization that brings medical, dental and veterinary care and health education to underserved communities around the world.
Working alongside Panamanian doctors and pharmacists, the UNK students established mobile medical clinics that provided free care and medication to more than 300 people living on an island chain off the Caribbean coast. These patients, as young as 15 days old, lack access to clean water, medication or hygiene products, allowing many treatable ailments and infections to worsen over time.
“They know when we’re coming and they’re prepared for it, so right when we get there they’re already lining up,” said Danielle Fortik, a UNK sophomore from Raymond. “It’s a really big day for them and you can tell they’re super grateful.”
A pre-dentistry student, Fortik referred to the trip as a “really extensive job-shadowing experience.” Student volunteers get the opportunity to work closely with professionals while gaining a global perspective on health care. Their tasks included patient intake, conducting public health surveys, checking vital signs and observing consultations and treatments during the six clinic dates.
The UNK students also visited a local school where they distributed hygiene products, talked about the importance of health care and played games with the roughly 40 children there using a soccer ball and volleyball they donated. Each member paid for their own trip, which cost $2,000 plus airfare and spending money, and they stayed together in a hostel.
Dey, who was part of last year’s medical outreach program in Peru, believes the impact is well worth the investment.
“You can tell by just watching everyone and getting to interact with everyone how grateful and thankful they are,” she said. “Even though we may think it’s not that big of a deal, to them it’s everything. I hope this experience helps us as young adults realize how many people there are out there who need our help, because we got to see it firsthand.”
Fortik is already planning to participate in the next VAW trip and she’s also thinking about ways to provide affordable dental care for patients down the road.
“It was a really eye-opening experience,” she said. “It would benefit almost anybody to see what other parts of the world are like and it kind of puts everything into perspective and makes you appreciate what you have in your life at home. If they could live the life I have, they would be so grateful.”
The following students, listed by hometown, participated in the medical outreach program in Panama:
Aurora – Sydney Perez
Central City – Kyle Dittmer
David City – Allison Daro
Grand Island – Grace Herbek
Gresham – Daylee Dey
Gretna – Jaiden Taylor
Kearney – Makenna Redinger
Kearney – Sydney Peterson
Lawrence – Kenzie Ostdiek
Lincoln – Allyson Korus
Lincoln – Ashlynn Sehi
Raymond – Alora Ferguson
Raymond – Danielle Fortik
Seward – Myka Smith
St. Paul – McKenna Anderson
Superior – Trenten Theis
Utica – Gracen Fehlhafer
York – Melanie Driewer