By Jackie Powder
Photo by Will Kirk
When Claire Whitfield ’05 returned to Baltimore last fall after a five-week trip to Ecuador on a humanitarian health mission, the Hopkins nursing student wondered, What next? Deeply moved by the poverty and lack of basic health care in the village of Jorge Gallardo, and exhilarated by the challenge of trying to improve conditions, Whitfield, 23, wanted to do more.
So she teamed up with two other nursing students who shared her interest in global health care—Bridget Arbour and Heiki Nuhsbaum—to create the International Health Organization (IHO) at the School of Nursing. Within six months, Whitfield found herself back in Ecuador as part of a 10-member group of nursing and medical students, who spent spring break on a service mission in Jorge Gallardo.
During their nine-day stay in the village of 1,500 families, they conducted health screenings, taught health education classes, and distributed medicine to treat widespread medical problems, including dehydration, malnutrition, and parasitic infection.
“This project has changed me and made me realize how a simple vision of providing care to a few can grow to supporting an entire village,” says Whitfield.
IHO members worked fast in the months before the Ecuador trip to raise $14,000 to pay for airfare, medications, and food. Financial contributors included School of Nursing alumni, a private foundation, and Rotary clubs.
The 10-member Hopkins medical team arrived in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito on March 11, and traveled eight hours west by bus to the market town of Chone. Waiting to welcome them were Sister Margaret, an Irish Catholic nun who has lived in Chone for a decade, and Matilda Diaz, a pediatrician and professor of nursing at a nearby university. When the group arrived in Jorge Gallardo—a 15-minute drive from Chone—Whitfield found conditions far worse than she had anticipated. One of the most serious challenges to good health: the lack of running water.
“All houses were built from wooden slabs on a hill and had uncovered water barrels sitting outside,” she says. “There was one water unit at the bottom of the hill where children would fill up water jugs and lug them back up to their houses to place in their dirty water barrels.”
The Hopkins students set up a health clinic in a new community facility built by an Irish church and adhered to a strict daily schedule. On most mornings, a student discussed a health topic that affected the village. When the clinic opened at 8:30 a.m., about 75 mothers and children were waiting to attend the talks, which addressed nutrition, family planning, parasite prevention, dehydration, and anemia.
Students examined patients and reviewed medical histories in the afternoons. The medical students worked with Diaz to prescribe medications for distribution at the makeshift pharmacy.
In addition to the Hopkins students, Whitfield enlisted the help of another volunteer: Jerry Whitfield, an engineer—and her father. He worked with Rotary Club members in Chone and a local engineer to develop a water distribution network for the village.
Whitfield hopes to return to Jorge Gallardo to expand the work that the IHO began. “The new challenge is to continue this project in years to come,” she says, “and to gain financial and emotional support from clubs and our School of Nursing to make it possible for students to afford [to go].”