Bringing on the Brigades

Global Brigades celebrates 15 years of service in rural Central America. What started as an idea from a College of Health Sciences student would quickly grow beyond all expectations.

Story and photos by Jesse Lee

On the first day of the medical portion of the 2018 Global Brigades trip to Nicaragua, I found myself baking in the heat of a sun much more intense than I’m used to, weighed down by 20 pounds of camera gear and wondering what I was doing here.

I hadn’t known what to expect when I signed up for this trip. I knew it was run by the world’s largest student-led humanitarian organization, which was co-founded in 2003 by then-Marquette student Dr. Shital (Chauhan) Vora. She helped grow Global Brigades into an international nonprofit with chapters in more than 475 universities throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland. I knew the statistics, could recite the numbers. But I didn’t expect the impact that the people on this trip would make.

I stood there, amazed by the 300 people who had traveled from neighboring villages, who waited in line for hours under that baking sun to see a physician assistant, doctor or dentist. I stood in awe of our students, more than half of whom were participating in their first brigade, as they immediately went to their work, checking people’s blood pressures and temperatures, routing them to the proper health care professionals, filling pharmacy prescriptions, educating the children — so many children — about health and wellness, and keeping track of it all in Global Brigades’ digital tracking system that helps ensure consistency of care for patients who rarely have access to this kind of health care.

I was still standing, emotions welling in me and unsure of my place, when a little girl named Jesaling grabbed my hand and said, “¡Vamos a jugar!” — Let’s play! That’s when it clicked, when I realized that the numbers and facts, while an important measure of the impact of Global Brigades’ good work, pale in comparison to the simple humanity of a little girl reaching out, despite the language barrier, and inviting me to experience her world for the day.

I know this trip had a profound impact on me, and it profoundly impacted our first-time student brigaders as well, who shared with me what this trip meant to them.

Now Exiting the Comfort Zone

Global Brigades can be an eye-opening experience for students who have never ventured outside the United States. They’re on a nine-day trip away from friends and family, with whom they have little to no contact during the trip, in a new country encountering situations of dire poverty that they have never witnessed.

Kaylyn Garant takes selfies with one of the children from the community.

“The first person I called when I got accepted to Global Brigades was my mom,” says Kaylyn Garant, a freshman biomedical sciences major from Port Washington, Wis. “It was a huge shock to her because I didn’t even tell her I applied. It was a month into freshman year, and I called her and told her I was going to Nicaragua. It didn’t immediately go over well, but after she learned more about Global Brigades and saw how much it meant to me, she was extremely supportive.”

The students survive on adrenaline for the first two days of travel and spend the end of the second day packing medical supplies in anticipation of the three-day medical brigade, the first leg of the trip. Once they’re settled in at the Global Brigades compound in the town of Estelí, they understand that the staff is there to make sure they’re safe and ready to work. They are also typically accompanied by brigaders from two or three other universities.

Jesaling listens to a brigadger’s heartbeat.

“I wrote in my journal after the first day there and said that I knew this trip was going to change me. I was right,” Garant says. “The people in Nicaragua are so thankful for what they have, even if it wasn’t a lot.

“At first, I felt guilty about having all that I do, but they constantly told us they are happy we’ve been blessed enough to travel to Nicaragua to help them,” she says. “It really changed my perspective on everything.”

Jake Beery, a sophomore biomedical engineering student from Duluth, Minn., found his perspective changed as well, thanks in part to some words from a fellow brigader.

Jake Beery gives a piggyback ride to one of the local children.

“During a reflection after our first day, another brigader, Michael Ulrich said, ‘A normal experience becomes great when you put your expectations in perspective, and a great experience becomes normal when you don’t,’” Beery recalls. “That stuck with me. Sometimes it’s hard to remember how lucky we are back home, but after our time in Nicaragua, I finally understand the privilege we have to live here and why this trip is so important.”

The beauty of the Nicaraguan countryside.

For Sophie Altenburg, a sophomore biomedical sciences major and pre-dental scholar from Milwaukee, the trip was a learning experience in which the lessons reshaped her approach to service.

“I learned so much more from the extremely kind, compassionate and loving people of Nicaragua than I ever imagined,” she says. “But the biggest lesson from my trip is that service is not one-sided — it’s mutually beneficial. While I was able to provide families with toothbrushes and toothpaste, they taught me about friendship, loyalty, compassion and love.”

Jumping in with Both Feet

There is an extensive application and interview process required in order to be invited to participate in Global Brigades. This year more than half of the students were first-time participants.

Sammy Deninger takes part in a daily reflection with the other brigaders.

“I felt so happy when I got accepted because I honestly didn’t think I was going to get in,” says Sammy Deninger, a sophomore nursing major from Manhattan, Ill. “There were so many people who wanted to go, and I wasn’t sure that I stood out enough. I was so excited because I knew this would be the experience of a lifetime.”

Nearly every first-time brigader has expressed an interest in returning — some looking to take part in a leadership role — and all hope to inspire others to take their first trip as well.

“I would tell someone considering Global Brigades that it will be the best decision of their life,” Garant says. “Not only do you travel to beautiful Nicaragua and perform an important service, but you get to do it with people who quickly become your family.”

“For me and for many others, this is the most impactful thing we have ever done,” Beery adds.

Medical Day, Public Health Day, Water Day

There are no days of the week on a Global Brigades trip. Instead of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, it’s Medical Day One, Public Health Day Two, etc. You’re so caught up in the intensity of the work that the actual day or date ceases to matter.

With the first two days of the trip devoted to travel and medical preparation, the third day of the trip is the first of a three-day medical brigade. Students and health care professionals split into two groups of 30 — Gold Team and Blue Team — and each morning, the teams travel nearly two hours over rocky roads to community centers in local villages.

Community members line up to be treated by health care professionals.

The teams will see roughly 300 patients each day of the three-day brigade. Each team will camp within a three- to four-room structure, typically a vacant schoolhouse, to set up stations for triage, medical and dental examinations and treatment, a makeshift pharmacy and an area to enter data for an electronic medical record.

Students assist in the on-site pharmacy.

After the three-day medical brigade is complete, the teams are reunited into one large group for a two-day public health brigade. The brigade again travels close to two hours to a remote village where they build “sanitation stations” for members of the community.

A local mason surveys the students’ work on the sanitation station.

These stations comprise a three-part combination toilet, shower and washing station, connected to a plastic waste-holding tank that separates solid and liquid waste and sends the gray water to a drainage field that is effectively a fertilized garden. Each station costs $470, and the community members are responsible for 40 percent of that cost, or $188, in addition to helping with the physical labor of building the station. A typical salary in the village is about $100 a month, so they are putting up nearly two months’ salary in order to acquire the basic necessity of sanitary toilet and bathing and washing facilities.

The Marquette brigaders built eight of these stations over the course of two days.

Upon completion of the public health brigade, the team has one more task — a water brigade, where they dig a trench that will one day supply water to a local community. The brigaders work on a 75-meter stretch of the total 4,000-meter line, digging uphill and removing rocks and even larger boulders that make up the land in this region.

Adam Walker digs a trench for a water pipe.

After that, it’s time to repack and prepare for the long day of travel ahead of them to return home on the day before the start of the new semester.

And while a nine-day trip seems like a long time, it passes quickly.

“The combined medical-public health-water brigades can pass like a blur,” says Dr. William Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, who has been attending brigades since 2009. “Students are working very hard by day, preparing for the following day’s activities by night, and they return to Milwaukee exhausted on several levels.

“I think one of the most powerul aspects of the experience for students is the realization that there is a marked difference between the poverty they witness and misery. Also, in many cases it can take a trip to a third-world setting to begin to see one’s local community at home with new eyes,” he says.

Sophie Altenburg (pictured right, in scrubs) poses with other brigaders and children from the community.

“As the trip was coming to an end, I was having a really difficult time accepting that at the end of the week, we had to leave this beautiful country and its amazing people,” Altenburg says. “However, I realized that the spirit of Global Brigades was always going to be with me no matter where I was. We can all continue to spread the mission of Global Brigades in our everyday lives — there are so many amazing service opportunities right here in Milwaukee, and we can all continue to make a positive impact.”

“I would absolutely do this again,” Deninger says. “I feel like I learned so much about myself in the process that I have an itch to do more, to continue to share my blessings. My life was changed in nine days, and I never knew that was possible. I now have memories for a lifetime.”

Read more about Global Brigades and other stories of student service in the new issue of Marquette Health Sciences Magazine: