Connecting Medical Students with Community Health Leaders in the Dominican Republic

Posted in GUMC Stories

OCTOBER 2, 2015—As senior associate dean of international programs at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Irma Frank, DDS, organizes opportunities for students to study all over the world. But this summer, she was recognized for a particular program, which is one of her favorites  - a month-long project where first-year medical students work with community health leaders in the Dominican Republic.

The award was given to Frank by the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) Mission, an organization founded by a pair of Cuban Jesuit priests to help members of Jesuit and other religious communities in North America learn about the challenges facing the people of Latin America. Previously, Frank was awarded the 2015 Patrick Healy Award by the Georgetown University Alumni Association.

In recognizing Frank for her service to the community with the ILAC Award for Dedication to Service, the ILAC Mission was joined by the Health Promoters, or “cooperadores de la salud,” community leaders trained by ILAC to educate their neighbors about living healthy lifestyles. “These people are identified from these communities,” Frank said. “They are leaders in these communities and they bring the people to the center for training in the basics of health that we take for granted.”

Living and serving in the Dominican Republic

After participating in an orientation in Santiago de los Caballeros, the students travel to the rural community of Comedero Abajo, home to a regional health care and health education center run by ILAC that includes a physician, nurse and 17 health promoters. The students then work with the health promoters to organize community health education and vaccination programs. Two Dominican physicians accompany the students at all times.

Students also help doctors by taking patients’ medical histories in Spanish. Knowledge of Spanish is recommended but not required and in their orientation in-country, students also learn about relevant medical terminology. “If they know Spanish, their experience probably will be better, but it’s not necessarily required,” Frank said. “Even without the Spanish, they have such a wonderful experience.”

Having students work with the health promoters is one of the most important aspects of the program in the Dominican Republic. “Some of the programs have a paternalistic approach, which is, ‘this is the way that you have to do it,’” Frank said. The program in the Dominican Republic is more grassroots, giving students the opportunity to see how medical professionals in rural areas use the resources they have to give the best care that they can.

The students live with local families in the rural communities where they serve, making it easier to understand and build connections with residents. The Dominicans are happy to host them, Frank said. “They love the Georgetown students because they are caring, polite, they know what they’re doing, they respond very well to guidance and instruction,” she said. “The people in the rural areas love them. They call them ‘my son’ or ‘my daughter’ when they go there. When they live with the families, they give the best room to the students.”

A rewarding experience for program participants

Drawn to GUMC by the international opportunities, Jordan Trezza, SOM ‘16, participated in the Dominican Republic program and described it as “truly transformative.” Inspired to pursue more opportunities to volunteer abroad, he plans to complete a fourth year international elective this February.

“I am certain that I will continue to take any opportunities I can to travel to other countries, contributing aid and helping others as my medical career progresses,” Trezza said. “I honestly feel that even though we were tasked to give medical care to the people of many outlying and rural villages of Santiago de los Caballeros, they gave us all so many more intangible things that will be with us forever, specifically a generosity of spirit that I have not seen anywhere else.”  

In addition to her role as the program’s organizer, Frank herself has participated in the program and voiced a similar sentiment. “You feel so good because you are thinking that you are going to give a lot but I think that you receive more than you give.”

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications