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Walking the Walk

ONU students experience health care delivery in the Dominican Republic.

  • Northern Without Borders recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to assist with health clinics and deliver wellness education.
  • Students performed vital tasks to make the clinics successful and helped Dominican physicians see more than 800 people in four days.
  • The trip was another example of ONU's commitment to high-impact learning opportunities and service-learning.
  • Students experienced the local culture and expanded their worldviews.

As an institution of higher learning, Ohio Northern University prides itself on pushing students to think beyond their preconceptions and to fully explore and embrace the debate inherent to all fields of study. Beyond the classroom, ONU is proud of the opportunities that students have to put their knowledge into practice and to experience lessons in the laboratory of life.

For the past four summers, a group of ONU students have traveled to the Dominican Republic to experience firsthand how health care is delivered to impoverished communities. They are Northern Without Borders, a student organization comprised primarily of students majoring in health care disciplines (pharmacy, nursing, pre-med, medical laboratory science and biology). For one week, they bring their training, skills and enthusiasm to people who genuinely need it.

Northern Without Borders left ONU on July 25, with 23 students, two faculty advisors and one alumnus. They arrived in San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, to the headquarters of Solid Rock International, an Indianapolis-based Christian nonprofit 501(c)3 organization focused on “transforming the body, mind and soul of the poor in the Dominican Republic.” In addition to building schools and improving nutrition and access to clean water, Solid Rock hosts mobile health clinics throughout the Dominican Republic, delivering health care to communities that lack access to adequate medical care facilities and supplies.

Solid Rock relies on volunteers from the United States to staff the health clinics. Each year, dozens of doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nurses travel to see patients and directly administer care. At other times, student groups like Northern Without Borders provide support to Dominican doctors and Solid Rock staff.

On their recent trip, ONU students were responsible for patient intake at the clinic triage stations; documenting a patient’s name, age, weight and symptoms; and recording basic vital signs such as blood pressure and glucose readings. Students also had the opportunity to observe doctors during patient consultations, fill prescriptions doctors wrote for patients with the donated medications Northern Without Borders brought, and administer community education sessions on topics of health, nutrition, hygiene and disease prevention.

“Working in the clinics was like nothing I have ever experienced,” says Northern Without Borders president and fifth-year pharmacy major Alexandra Ting. “At home, I work in an organized and sterile hospital. The clinics in the Dominican were held in one-room schoolhouses. There would be 30 people working and at least 20 patients in the one room with long lines of patients waiting outside. The activity was nonstop, chaotic and a little maddening.”

In one week, Northern Without Borders participated in four health clinics in three different Dominican provinces where they saw more than 800 patients.

Dr. Shahna Arps, lecturer of anthropology and Northern Without Borders faculty co-advisor, believes what the students get from the experience is equally important to what they give. “This trip has provided these students with firsthand training that will benefit them professionally, but they also grow personally as their worldviews expand,” she says. “Most of them have never worked in communities with such limited resources before, or had to overcome language and cultural barriers during health care provision.”

For Ting, the differences between what she had come to learn to be health care from studying pharmacy at ONU and the realities of health care administration in the Dominican Republic were stark.

“They are two completely different worlds,” she says. “First of all, doctors there have to be realistic. In the U.S., if someone has a problem, there is a drug for it. In the barrios that is not an option for most people. ‘You have an infection? Boil water and add vinegar. You have mouth sores? Boil water and add baking soda. Your back hurts? Let’s take a look at your shoes.’ They have to think about what the patient has access to, and nine times out of 10 it is not drugs.”

As an anthropologist, Arps understands that one week in the Dominican Republic can have a lasting effect. When confronted face-to-face with poverty on a personal level, students begin to ask profound questions: What do I value? What is truly important in life?

“I'm really proud of these ONU students,” says Arps. “Their hearts and minds are open. They’ve realized how much they can learn from people who live in such a different social, political and economic context.”

Between clinics, the students had time for exploration. They attended a church service, toured a market in San Juan, marveled at the Dominican’s natural beauty and experienced the generosity of their host communities. Before departing from the seaside capital of Santo Dominigo, the students even managed set the bar for all future O-N-U photos.

In addition to Arps, Northern Without Borders was accompanied by Rick Bales, dean of the Claude W. Pettit College of Law, and University of Toledo medical school student Andrew Park, BS ’12.