Students experience health care a world away

More than 30 Academic Health Collaborative students see firsthand the challenges of health care in a developing area

The Academic Health Collaborative recently expanded upon a 50-year relationship with the country of Indonesia, as four professors brought 26 URI students on a service learning trip during J-term this year.

Pharmacy Professor Matthew Bertin, along with Nursing Professor Kerri Ellis and Health Sciences Professors Molly Greaney and Alisa Baron brought the students to Indonesia for two weeks, where they got a lesson in the social determinants of health. The students visited the capital, Jakarta, where they learned the challenges of urban public health in an impoverished, often flooded area with a lack of clean water, before traveling to a rural outpost to witness the similar health challenges there. They spent time volunteering in a maternal health clinic, which Bertin said was among the trip’s highlights; learned traditional Indonesian medicine, even helping make a remedy for stomach illness in the form of a tea; and participated in an oral health outreach program, providing toothbrushes and toothpaste, and teaching children proper oral hygiene.

“I think they really got to see first-hand what it means when they see in a textbook, ‘social determinants of health,’” Bertin said. “What is it about the way someone’s lifestyle is, what they’re exposed to, how they eat, how they get rid of sewage, all that together? How does all that together determine how heathy they can be? I think we saw that first-hand with really major issues, like the handling of solid waste, lack of water treatment. It’s a really tough situation to be in.”

The students also traveled extensively through the country, experiencing its culture at a Hindu temple and a ceremony at Ulawatu Temple, featuring a traditional Balinese fire dance. They experienced the beauty of the coral reefs that ring the country during a snorkeling trip, juxtaposed to impoverished areas with unclean water and plastic waste prominently littering the land. They learned how the people live, and how healthcare is provided in a developing country.

“They’re learning about health care in a very different part of the world, but they’re also learning how many health issues are similar to what’s going on here,” said Dean Paul Larrat, who joined the group in Indonesia. “They’ve been involved in mental health, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, things that also impact the U.S. It’s all transferable.”

During the trip, Larrat met with government ministries, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and colleagues at area universities, reaffirming a scholarship agreement between URI and the government of Papua, and holding receptions for URI alumni and the parents of the dozens of Indonesian students currently studying at URI.

“They were very appreciative that we’re taking good care of their kids, and their kids are learning and bringing their skills back to Papua with them,” Larrat said. “We had more than 100 participants. You would think a country half a world away wouldn’t have so many URI graduates, but we’ve had this unique relationship with Indonesia for 50 years. Quite a few graduate degrees have come out of URI, and the university has a number of well-placed graduates in Indonesia.”

The trip was an eye-opening reminder of the way health care is delivered in different cultures, according to pharmacy student Amy Mills, and the challenges health care professionals face in a developing nation. It also provided students a chance to give back to the community during an oral health lesson with local schoolchildren, and gave the students a look at different cultures than they’re accustomed to experiencing.

“This past J-Term Global Health Trip to Indonesia was genuinely one of the best experiences I have ever had. It opened my eyes to different cultures, religions, and also how different people around the world live their lives,” Mills said. “This trip has not only impacted my education, but also my career going forward for the better. I am now more aware of the different treatments that Indonesia has to offer for different diseases and illnesses, and how they go about doing so. This trip taught me so much educational and career-wise, but also taught me characteristics and traits that have helped me to grow as an individual.”