Nursing undergrads head to Peru, bringing medical supplies and aid

Growing up in India, SF State nursing student Sudha Saravanan witnessed a need for medical aid — and a shortage of people who could give it.

After immigrating to the United States 17 years ago Saravanan decided to pursue a career in nursing, ignoring the dissenting voices of her friends and husband who doubted the profession would provide enough support for her family. No other job, she decided, could fulfill her desire to help those who cannot help themselves.

“A lot of people have helped me along the way, so I really want to give back,” said Saravanan. “I want to make connections with people, to see them face to face and do whatever I can to make their lives a little bit better.”

This spring break, Saravanan and 14 other nursing undergraduates will embark on an eight-day trip to Cusco, Peru, where they will volunteer medical services and education. Students will divide their time between assisting doctors in an understaffed and underfunded medical clinic and teaching orphan children about hygiene and self care. Their work will emphasize patient empowerment and disease prevention, rather than short-term medical aid.

The experience will cost each student $2,000, which covers the flights, travel insurance and a seven-night stay with a host family. The fee also pays for daily Spanish classes that teach volunteers the basics of speaking with patients.

“I hope students get a wider perspective of health care, that what they do affects the world, and that there’s a need globally, not just in their own environment,” said nursing Lecturer Brenda Lewis.

As the team leader, Lewis spends much of her time outside the classroom preparing for the trip: making sure all the students have their passports and immunizations, arranging the group’s matching t-shirts and collecting over-the-counter drugs from her students to fill an extra suitcase with. Lewis is a teacher and mentor to the volunteers, but she will abandon her parental role once the group is in Cusco.

“I’m not going to be their instructor,” said Lewis. “We’re just going as 16 women.”

Lewis coordinated the trip with International Volunteer HQ, an organization that partners individuals and groups with volunteer opportunities and affordable accommodation in developing countries. Their goal is to foster aid where it is needed and create an experience that is educational for both the local community and the volunteers.

“A lot of practices that the volunteers learn abroad can be implemented in their home country,” said Katie Brayne, IVHQ representative. “It’s not just a personal gain, it’s a community gain: not just the community they’re volunteering in but the community they return to at the end of the experience.”

The trip’s objective, according to Lewis, is not only to put students’ education toward a worthy cause, but also to advocate knowledge and perspective different from a medical student who has only treated patients domestically.

“Nursing students should grab any opportunity to get out and see how different other conditions are,” said Saravanan. “I’m going to learn from every moment of my trip and, if I can, help others learn.”

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