Photo courtesy of UCR Global Medical Brigades
Photo courtesy of UCR Global Medical Brigades

While many of us spent the last winter break working retail, binging on Netflix or just lazing about in general, some Highlanders flew to another nation to make a difference. For the week of Dec. 13 to Dec. 20, 31 students flew to the underprivileged community of San Diego in Honduras and set up a free health clinic. Over the course of four days, these students saw over 1,200 patients. These students would go on to help the patients in various ways, ranging from life-saving heart medication to merely measuring pulses or glucose levels. These students were from UCR Global Medical Brigades (GMB).


The UCR chapter of Global Medical Brigades was founded in 2008, Global Medical Brigades itself just being one of 10 divisions of the encompassing organization Global Brigades. Global Brigades was founded in 2004 by Gerardo Enrique Rodriguez, an orphaned child from Honduras, with the mission statement of giving holistic aid to countries in need. They currently send brigaders to Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Ghana, though they are in the process of branching out to India as well.


There is more to GMB than the brigades themselves, which happen once during summer and once during winter break every year, each one being about a week. The rest of the year, UCR GMB actively participates in Keep Riverside Clean and Beautiful, volunteer at a boys’ home and volunteer with health clinics here in Riverside, though they are working on opening up a free health clinic of their own to serve the underprivileged closer to home. “We are always hands-on and 100 percent interactive with our patients,” said current UCR GMB President Matt Gomez. “A lot of volunteer opportunities you get to do a little bit, but with Medical Brigades, you get to do a lot more, which is awesome.”


On top of all that, they are in a constant state of fundraising, having events practically every week to raise the hefty $10,000 for the medical supplies needed for each brigade. In addition, each member must fundraise $1,600 to cover all the expenses of going on the brigade. However, Gomez assured that nearly everyone who wants to go will be able to raise the funds and go. Some members in the past didn’t even have a background in medicine; former president Michael Clemons had no interest in becoming a doctor and no prior experience with medicine and yet went on to go on six brigades. “Anyone can go,” said Gomez. “As long as you want to help people and be part of something bigger than yourself, you can go. Everything you need to know, we teach you.”


But at the end of the day, it is the brigades themselves that lie at the heart of everything GMB does, as well as what really leaves an impression on brigaders. “It’s a very eye-opening experience (being over there). Here in the States, we take a lot of comforts for granted.” Gomez went on to describe the daily routine of the brigade, which seemed utterly daunting to say the least. They would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and get on the bus by 6, then they would arrive at the clinic at 8 and open shop at 9. They would work with 300-500 patients until 4 or 5 p.m. — whenever every patient had been seen. On average, the brigaders would get only around three hours of sleep per night, yet continue working as determined as ever to help those in need. And through their efforts, each one of them became closer. “You create a bond (with one another) that can’t be created anywhere else. We become like family,” said Gomez.


On top of running a free health clinic, whilst on brigades, brigaders will also go on house visits, where they assist those who could not travel to the clinic and come face-to-face with the hardships people have to live with. Many of these houses had sticks for walls and garbage bags for roofs. Gomez described one house that held two sisters, one 91 years old and the other 88, who both slept next to a coffin for whoever would die first. When asked what they do for a living, all they said was, “We suffer. We suffer every day. We don’t do anything but suffer.”


But there is a silver lining in that they get to better the lives of these people. “A lot of those people down there have never seen a doctor before,” said Gomez. “When we got off that bus, we saw 400 people lined up, begging. We said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll all be seen,’ and they started cheering, and patting our backs with tears in their eyes.” Thanks to GMB, a woman with a treatable heart condition was cured of her ailments — without them, it was likely she would die. GMB is also currently fundraising to fly a young man with liver cancer to the States for surgery.


Then there are the countless smaller things like checking blood pressure or giving goodie bags to children and teaching them how to use a toothbrush that made countless smiles. “Seeing how appreciative they are, seeing how their faces light up over doing something like getting their pulse or blood level checked, the immense gratitude is unbelievable. It’s one of the those experiences that really changes your life,” said Gomez.


And it’s these smiles and eye-opening moments that keep the brigaders enthusiastic to do more and more despite all of the hard work that is involved. “My biggest regret for this, my biggest regret of college, really, is not joining earlier,” said Gomez. Because if there’s one thing to be said about UCR Global Medical Brigades, it’s that they are determined and eager to make a difference.