Wetzel Reflects on First Global Health Immersion

Professor Eric Wetzel – The first Wabash Global Health Initiative immersion trip is now over. We’re back on campus, classes start this week and it would be easy to move on from the summer’s activities to new challenges and demands — of course in many ways, we must move on. But before considering how we might move forward with courses, research, and interest in global health, it’s important to think over what we’ve gained thus far. What did my students gain from their time in Peru? Indeed, what did I learn?

Two of the community health promotors with whom we worked in the communities around Tarapoto.

If you’ve read their blog entries, it’s clear that our students gained a new sense of the health issues faced by many people in Peru. Working the first week in extremely poor areas on the fringes of Lima, we confronted head on the sights, smells, and desperation of folks who live in desperate conditions of limited water availability, no sanitation, and very limited health care. Through colleagues, friends and contacts in Peru, Wabash College arranged and orchestrated the health “campaigns” in Pamplona Alta and another small section in Lima where no other groups have gone. The opportunity here is not intended to be simply a once-and-done experience for Wabash students – although it was an immensely meaningful experience– but rather part of a larger, continuing effort to collect data in areas of poverty that will not only contribute to national data on health in Peru, but also cycle back to Peruvian collaborators, medical personnel and students who will use our data to help address health problems in those communities. Hopefully we will be able to continue work there in the future. We need to.

In the rainforest areas two to three hours from the city of Tarapoto we were embraced by three different communities: Kawana Sisa, Maray and Ishichiwi. Relative to Pamplona Alta in Lima, these areas hold some different challenges (e.g., greater problems with diarrhea and intestinal parasites) but also others that are all too familiar — contaminated drinking water, limited or no sanitation systems and very limited access to reliable health care. How do you protect your health when you collect your drinking water from the same stream that receives the waste from the community? There are solutions to questions like this but as we learned they are complicated, burdened with the weight of limited resources, a lack of information, and the slow pace of cultural change.

Yes, students surveyed folks (in Spanish) for health information and collected data on height and weight; we checked children and adults for lice, and many learned how to take simple blood samples to be used later in tests for anemia and parasitic infection. But we also observed and learned about the difficulties families face with access to even basic health care.  We heard about various social problems and how women shoulder much of the responsibility for their families. Owing to the poor sanitation services in these areas, we stepped carefully past areas where human and animal waste had accumulated on paths or roads, understanding how nearly impossible it must be to avoid infections for which fecal contamination of water or food is the route of transmission. In Pamplona Alta we choked on the smoke from fires burning hog waste and garbage, and noted how that smoke hung in the small valley where these homes are located. Is it any wonder that people in this area suffer greatly from respiratory problems related to this reality?

But in the face of this, we were humbled by the generosity and words of gratitude from community leaders as they thanked us for visiting them. We worked in these areas because of contacts I was fortunate to be able to make over the past year or two, so it’s difficult to overstate how meaningful our investment of time and attention is to the people there. It’s true — collecting data and addressing health problems of people in poverty are ways we can learn about global health issues and contribute to improving the health. But they are also ways we learn to “live humanely” by recognizing and honoring the dignity of the lives of the people with whom we interact.

“So now what?” was a question that I posed often to this first group of Global Health students. “Now you know some of the health (and the social, and the political, and the economic) problems faced by so many, and the conditions in which many live – now you bear some responsibility….maybe not in Peru, but somewhere to be sure. As a liberally-educated Wabash man, what are you going to do with this?” All of us need to wrestle with such questions, of course. I’m thankful for the opportunity to engage in experiences that not only generate or force such questions, but which also serve to stimulate some of the answers at the same time.

What did I (re-)learn on this trip? There are lots of specific things, of course, but in part I learned in greater detail what Wabash can do to better educate our students interested in global health issues and the good that can come from that. I learned afresh how great our students and faculty can be as they interact and work together and with others. And I learned that even though we teach and learn at a small college, in a small town, our students and this College can have a big impact.

Below is a video of the guys singing “Old Wabash” for the locals. They clapped with the enthusiasm of any Wabash fan.


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