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PA Students Provide Free Medical Care in Mexico

Charlie Coffaro and Jennifer George see patients in the clinic’s triage area, set up outside a worn-down, metal-roofed shack.

Forgoing pristine beaches, a relaxing week at home or other typical Spring Break activities, seven students from the University of Kentucky’s College of Health Sciences Physician Assistant Studies program traveled to Piedras Negras, Mexico, to help provide medical care in free clinics across the city.

Students Rebekah Basham, Charlie Coffaro, Jennifer George, Tali Hunt, Adrienne Parks, Danielle Shelley and Margaret Summers were accompanied by Sam Powdrill, a PA faculty member, as well as Steve Fisher (’78) and Dustin Atkins (’08), both alumni of the program and practicing physician assistants in Kentucky. College of Health Sciences staff member Nick Basham also participated.

Powdrill and Parks organized the trip for those associated with the UK physician assistant program, making it the fourth consecutive year members of the program had participated. They joined a diverse group of medical professionals and other volunteers from across the country through Crossroad Missions, a Christian missions organization based in Louisville. Crossroads has a full-time staff and facilities in Piedras Negras and organizes the medical brigade every year. This year’s participants included physicians, physician assistants, pediatricians, pharmacists, optometrists and public health professionals, as well as others without a medical background.

The second-year students, who up to now have spent the majority of their time in the classroom, were able to diagnose and treat patients under the guidance of supervising medical professionals.

“This is a great experience for the students,” said Powdrill, who was on this fourth trip to the Mexican border city. “They are able to apply the skills they’ve learned so far and practice in a non-threatening clinical environment. They’re growing as practitioners and helping the people of Piedras Negras at the same time.”

The clinic was equipped with a wide variety of drugs for acute treatment, but those with chronic problems (such as high blood pressure or blood sugar) were directed to local physicians who could provide the long-term treatment they required.

Students and other volunteers rotated through each of the clinics’ stations, including a triage area for taking vitals like blood pressure and blood sugar, a providers area where medical providers treated patients, a pharmacy, a health counseling area and a health fair providing basic necessities such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and shampoo.

The free clinics were held at different locations each day in poor areas of the city. Banners were hung at clinic locations the week before and organizers walked neighborhoods prior to the brigade’s arrival to announce the free medical care. Sites this year included a small school, a men's prison and a tiny church in the heart of a neighborhood built within feet of a busy train railway.

“This was a truly great experience and a wonderful opportunity for students in our program,”" said Parks. “I felt like we were really making a difference in these people’s lives – plus, we had the chance to learn from some very smart and caring medical professionals.”

Despite a slow clinic due to gray and rainy weather on the first day, the medical group treated nearly 500 patients throughout the week-long trip.

For more about the students’ experience in Piedras Negras, visit a blog they updated daily throughout the trip at mexico2010.tumblr.com.

For more information about the UK Physician Assistant program, visit www.mc.uky.edu/pa.

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Even a bumpy bus ride on a pothole-ridden dirt road can serve as a classroom. Sam Powdrill uses the trip to today’s clinic site to demonstrate surgical knots using twine.

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Adrienne Parks checks a woman’s pulse in the triage area of the clinic.

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Rebekah Basham uses an otoscope to check a little girl’s ears.

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Margaret Summers meets with a patient under the guidance of Steve Fisher.

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Dr. Jim Frasure, a retired ER doctor from Bloomington, Ind., uses his hat to provide shade for Danielle Shelley to inspect her patient’s throat.

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Tali Hunt discusses a patient with Dr. Mark Harrell, an ER doctor from Tennessee, while Sam Powdrill, Andrienne Parks and Margaret Summers listen.

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A patient wearing a University of Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt waits between triage and provider stations.