In Mercy College’s first medical mission trip since 2019 — which was put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic — students and faculty from the School of Health and Natural Sciences traveled to the Dominican Republic in March on a five-day humanitarian medical mission. The team — which included a total of 16 students from the Physician Assistant Studies, Physical Therapy, Communication Disorders and Occupational Therapy Assistant Studies programs — provided free medical care to hundreds of people in underserved areas in and around Santo Domingo, the capitol.
“It's such a win-win situation because the patients get the help they need and the students get to practice being providers,” said Nicole Jarck, M.S. ’23, who is a student in the Physician Assistant Studies program. “I just wish we could do more.”
Over the course of three days, the Mercy team treated patients in three different locations: a school in Santo Domingo Este, a school northwest of Santo Domingo and a rural clinic near the sugar cane fields in the San Pedro de Macoris region. The trip was organized and sponsored by Friends of Lead-Free Children and Continental Food and Beverage Inc./Inca Kola USA.
“I was so proud to see that students were able to apply what they've learned with such compassion and empathy,” said Nannette Hyland, P.T., Ph.D., D.P.T., director of the Physical Therapy program. “It's very different to do an evaluation on the spot when you don’t have a full hour to work with the patient in a fully equipped facility. To see them apply their knowledge and skills in a flexible way that met each individual's needs was just amazing.”
“It took just seconds for students to start working with each other to figure out how to treat each patient,” said Brian Baker, M.D., assistant professor in the Physician Assistant Studies program. “That collaboration is exactly what they'll have to do once they start practicing because medicine is truly a team sport.”
At each clinic site, people lined up for hours to see the Mercy team. In the triage area, Mercy students and providers performed initial assessments. Then, patients met with at least one medical team before visiting the pharmacy area to collect vitamins and any prescribed medications.
The clinic days were truly community events. “People would bring all five of their kids or all their neighbors,” said Carol Habib, M.S. ’23, a student in the Physician Assistant Studies program. “Sometimes we would see 10 people at once, which was a bit overwhelming but also wonderful.”
One memorable patient was a nurse who was treating her own knee pain with injectable drugs. “She didn’t seem to understand that this is the wrong way to treat her pain,” said Cindy Pham, D.P.T. ’24, a student in the Physical Therapy program. “Most of the other symptoms she complained of — like lower body swelling — were actually caused by the medication, not her knee injury. This made me reflect on health literacy and made me feel very grateful for my own education.”
The experience helped shape the way students will approach their work and their patients for years to come. “I learned that building a relationship with a patient goes a long way toward ensuring that they’ll be invested in following through with the prescribed treatment plan,” said Capt. Kevin Quinde, D.P.T. ’25, a student in the Physical Therapy program who also serves as a civil affairs officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Many students left wishing they could do more. “As much we were able to do down there, it still doesn’t feel like enough,” said Eoin Reid, D.P.T. ’24, a student in the Physical Therapy program. “We have no way of checking in on the patients or progressing their exercises as they become stronger. That ongoing assessment is a huge aspect of physical therapy.” Reid and his family raised hundreds of dollars to buy medications to bring on the trip.
Several students mentioned that these medical mission trips were part of why they chose to attend Mercy College. These service-minded students will undoubtedly continue to give back and draw on the lessons they learned on this trip for the rest of their careers.
“Trips like this open your eyes to systemic issues,” said Jarck. “Bringing students on trips like this is so important because we’re going to be the next generation of advocates for changing the system.”