Devon Hill-Larson is a pre-nursing honors student who will be a sophomore this fall. She plans to write her honors thesis on health care in developing countries following a service learning trip to Belize. Her future career goals include becoming a labor and delivery nurse and then going back to school to become a neonatal nurse practitioner.
Hi, my name is Devon Hill-Larson and I am a pre-nursing student studying abroad in Belize for the summer. There is so much I want to include in this blog that has happened in the last three weeks; I have no idea how I’m going to fit it all in one blog post, but I will try my best! Come on a journey with me to Belize, won’t you?
When you step off the plane you’re immediately flooded with heat and humidity; it feels like a sauna. There’s no AC in the airport, or in many buildings in Belize. The only public places in Dangriga that are air-conditioned are the two banks. I personally thought that since I was from Texas—the home of 112-degree summer weather—that I would be fine in Belize and that it would just be a minor adjustment. I was wrong. I was sweating bullets within five minutes of arriving. We were told in our study abroad prep classes that the temperature would not get above 85 degrees, so naturally I thought the weather would be nice. The humidity, however, makes it feel like it’s 100+ degrees outside!
We were told the bus ride to Dangriga would only take about two and a half hours; it took three and a half. Once we were finally settled in the Jungle Huts, our home for the next three weeks, it hit me that we were going to be here for a long time! Being a college student, being away from home for three weeks is no big deal; in fact I’m normally away from home for months at a time. However, when you’re in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone, not even your roommates, three weeks is a much bigger ordeal.
The food in Belize consists of a lot of rice, beans, and chicken. After this trip I think I will be staying away from said foods for a while! What I craved most while in Belize was good Italian food. I also missed being able to fill up my water bottle with tap water. The water here is unsafe and we had to always be mindful to either buy water or fill up our water bottles for the day at our hotels, which have filtered water.
When in San Ignacio for our second weekend excursion many of us decided to do the ATM (Actun, Tunichil, Muknal) cave tour. We plunged into ice-cold water and swam into the cave, which was pitch black minus the little headlights on our helmets. We saw Mayan artifacts, crabs without eyes (they evolved to have no eyes after living in the pitch black caves for so long), and stalactites and stalagmites galore! It was quite an adventure! We rock climbed, swam through crevasses so small we could barely slide through them, and along the way learned a lot about Mayan culture.
For example, Mayans’ version of beauty involved flattened foreheads and crossed eyes. So when they were babies they would have a piece of wood fastened to their foreheads to push it back and flatten it. The board would dangle a little bead which hung between the baby’s eyes causing the baby to go cross-eyed. Mayans were also quite short, standing on average 5’4” tall at adulthood and lived to only about 35-50 years of age. We learned at Xunantunich, a Mayan ruin in San Ignacio, that the Mayans purposefully built their steps up to their buildings very steep and tall, considering their short stature, so that each time they stepped up they would be bowing to their gods and thereby showing respect. In the Mayan culture it was an honor to be sacrificed and the Mayans believed in an afterlife as well as reincarnation, so it was common practice for very young people (age 13 for example) to be sacrificed, and the more painful the sacrifice was, the greater the sacrifice was considered to be. We saw the remains of two 13-year-old twin girls who had been sacrificed in the ATM cave.
The main point of this study abroad experience is community development. My main task, being in the health group, was shadowing nurses at the local hospital in Dangriga, Southern Regional Hospital. I helped with mobile clinics in Hopkins, Belize and Pomona, Belize where we immunized babies, and where I attended and helped organize workshops and seminars with the POWA (Proactive Organization of Women in Action). The first day of shadowing was interesting; I got to dress an infected bullet wound!
While out on mobile clinics in Pomona I met a nurse named Nurse Ribera. I found her very interesting, fun, and informative. She taught me a lot about the health status of Belize and the health system there in the short eight hours that I was with her. One thing I found most interesting was that as long as one has a social security number in Belize, the health care is free of cost. I also learned that in order to get prescription medicine you just have to go into a pharmacy and ask the pharmacist what you should take for your symptoms. Pharmacists in Belize go through extensive training similar to medical school in America and are able to prescribe meds, not only administer them.
Another activity that I didn’t mention earlier was touring the BFLA (Belize Family Life Association), which is synonymous with Planned Parenthood here in the States. In fact, they are partially funded by the IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation). For the most part, BFLA teaches reproductive health and employs preventative care such as family planning, STI screening, HIV testing, Pap smears, etc. At the seminars and workshops we put on, we taught young girls ages 8-19 about anemia, hypertension and diabetes. We played Jeopardy with the girls to help cement their new knowledge of these diseases. During the daily double round one girl had to do her best impression of Michael Jackson as well as answer the health question in order to win daily double points for her team. It was quite a sight to see! I wish I had captured a video of her impression on my phone. All of the girls as well as the members of the health group had a lot of fun and learned a lot! I was amazed by how much the girls knew about the United States. One of the “Fun” category questions was “What is the capitol of Arkansas?” and one girl got it right on the first try! I was impressed especially since there are some Americans who wouldn’t know the answer to that question.
By far, my favorite part of the trip was the traditional herbs lesson taught by the POWA. We learned many, many things that are applicable for those in the United States as well as Belize. For example, honey is used to treat thrush in babies in Belize, even though in America we do not give babies under the age of one honey because it increases the likelihood of SIDS. Basil is used to relieve gas in your stomach and is also good for an earache if you mash it up and put it in your ear. Thyme is also good for earaches when you drip the oil into your ear and then place the thyme leaf in your ear as well. We also learned that aloe vera is good for almost everything! It’s a miracle plant. It’s good for cuts, scrapes, bruises, fly bites (there are dreaded disgusting flies that bite that I unfortunately have had the joy of experiencing while in Belize), mosquito bites, and ingrown toenails — you name it! You can even use it to ease hypertension. Burning orange peels in your yard will keep the mosquitos away while smelling amazing, unlike the chemicals we use in the U.S. to ward off mosquitos. And, finally what I thought was most useful for those of us from the South, where the summer heat is killer, was when Ms. Michelle Irving, “The Herb Lady,” told us that lime water will ease fatigue caused by extreme summer heat.
While on this trip I have learned an enormous amount of things about the Garifuna and Mayan cultures in Belize, about health care in Belize, and about the traditional herbs used in Belize to cure and treat illnesses. There is more knowledge I have acquired than I could ever include in one blog post. I would recommend this program to any pre-nursing or pre-medical students, especially.
For those students who are anxious about study abroad due to fear of missing their family, friends, or significant other, then I would still recommend this program and offer this advice. My personal experience in Belize was that my relationship with my boyfriend grew stronger even though we were so far away from each other. The Internet here is strong enough to be able to talk to friends and family each night. Skype however is not possible; FaceTime is though. This trip is only three weeks. It gives you a little taste of a different culture and of a form of independence you have never felt before! It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and is a good fit for those who could not see themselves studying abroad for an extended period of time. I cannot thank enough the people at the Honors College who have made this trip possible for me! I thank y’all enormously from the bottom of my heart for making this dream of mine —my first trip out of the US—a reality!