Hiking to the waterfalls of Central America, making trips to the long strand beaches of Nicaragua and helping one’s fellow men all along the way.
UM student, April Runkle did just that, last summer on a mission trip to Central America organized by International Service Learning (ISL).
Runkle and a small team of predominately pre-med students-as well as registered doctors and nurses from the US-volunteered for a medical mission trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, providing health services and clinics to needy recipients in the villages they visited.
It was mission-based but they didn’t push it on you. It was very relaxed. You participated in what you want to participated in,” Runkle said.
Runkle is not a pre-med student but the Latin American studies and Spanish major was the translator for the group, which, “definitely helped my Spanish,” she said.
“Particularly being able to translate on the spot…it was great practice and a good work skill for later on,” she said.
“The kids were really the highlight of the trip,” said Runkle, “they were the real positive sparks.”
Since most of the students on the trip wanted to talk to the kids, April spent a lot of time as the intermediary, she said.
The two-week trip started off in San Jose Costa Rica, where they had a brief orientation for the pre-med students, familiarizing them with the tropical diseases that they would encounter there, like malaria, worms, dengue fever, and cholera, said Runkle.
“For me there was a special list of medical terms that I had to learn,” she said, particularly ways people would be describing pain and discomfort, since she was the intermediary between the ailing, Spanish-speaking patients, and the American students and medical staff.
After the orientation in San Jose, the group headed north through the rainforests of Costa Rica to the Nicaraguan border.
ISL offers two types of programs, one is more urban-based and students visit hospitals, and the other was on the road less travelled-literally.
“We were on the more rugged, backwoods trip,” said Runkle. “Most of the places we went to were only accessible by horseback or boat, sometimes a two-hour or more bare back horse ride through the rainforest.”
Once they arrived in a village, they would notify everyone close to the village, and set up the clinic, usually in a church.
“People would come and bring their children, and we’d give out medicines, like antibiotics, aspirin, and ibuprofen. Also lots of vitamins for the kids,” said Runkle.
“Their health looked alright”, said Runkle except on an island in Lake Nicaragua where most of the people were malnourished, she said.
Time spent with a Nicaraguan dentist stood out in Runkle’s memory.
“All she did was pull out teeth left and right, very seldom using anesthesia,” said Runkle.
“But people wanted it done. It was obvious we were helping because the people would be lining up at the clinics.”
Despite not being a medical student, April did get some actual hands on experience while helping the dentist, “cutting away” at a patient’s gums with the dentist’s supervision. Some of the methods were a little crude, but it was the only help these people could get, said Runkle.
“We saw this lady cut worms out of this guy’s head,” said Runkle, relaying her craziest experience on the trip.
“It was a life learning experience, really once in a lifetime…you don’t get that experience in America” said Runkle.
“I got to intermingle with the people and learn their culture and language first hand.”
April highly recommended the trip, first for pre-med students, then anyone else who is interested in Latin American culture.
“They will learn a lot,” Runkle said. “It doesn’t matter how religious you are, you can still be a valuable and appreciated member of the group.”
Runkle was one of only two students on the trip who were not pre-med-another girl was an elementary education major who sat in on classes in some of the Nicaraguan villages where the medical clinics were set up, and accompanied Runkle as a translator.
She also added that the experience was a great way for pre-med students to build their resume and stand out it in the crowd of applications.
“You don’t even have to know Spanish-all of the trip leaders were English-speaking Americans and not all communication is verbal,” Runkle said.
She mentioned a pre-med student from Hawaii and a young Nicaraguan boy drawing pictures to communicate.
“They were laughing and carrying on for hours,” she said.
As mentioned above, the group also takes some time out for sightseeing. The group went for hikes up volcanoes, to waterfalls, and also went to the beautiful long strand beaches on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast.
To increase safety, the Houston-based ISL had a network of contacts throughout the country, and they had the same support staff (e.g. bus drivers) for all of the trips.
Also, everywhere they went people knew about the program and were excited to see the group, said Runkle.
ISL offers programs like the one Runkle went on throughout the year, starting this December 30th, with more trips over Spring Break and including a new one to Belize and Guatemala, as well as six other two-week courses in the summer.
The trip costs about $1,700, plus airfare, but since it was a mission trip, many people get pledges from churches or other well-meaning philanthropists.
Runkle will be giving a presentation November 18, at 3 pm in Mahoney Classroom #103, where she will be showing pictures and answering any questions.
If you have any questions e-mail Runkle at: firstname.lastname@example.org.