Profile - Elizabeth Gartner

Working vacation

Elizabeth Gartner

Elizabeth Gartner usually reserves a week of vacation before school starts to get her kids ready for a new semester. In the summer of 2019, however, she spent her vacation taking care of strangers in Honduras.

Gartner, an Occupational Therapist at West Park Healthcare Centre, learned of a medical brigade to Honduras from a U of T email distributed through West Park’s Professional Practice department in March, 2019 and had until May to make her decision to join the brigade.

“I had almost done something similar in Nicaragua when I was in school, but the trip ended up being cancelled,” Gartner says. “Since then, the timing had never been right to go, until now.”

The Honduras Medical Brigade, hosted by the University of Toronto chapter of Global Brigades, was a nine-day work excursion that involved medical treatment, teaching, and construction, as well as the culture shock of working in a developing healthcare climate.

“It’s a bit different than our work here,” Gartner says of her experience. “You hear about the healthcare over there, but when you see it, it’s very eye opening.”

The group of 15 volunteers, made up of mostly undergraduate students and Gartner – the only Occupational Therapist in the group – spent the first part of their trip making hundreds of hygiene packs and setting up one of Global Brigades’ community medical clinics, located hour and a half away from the compound where they were staying. Each clinic day included intake, triage for medical and/or dental treatment, and a pharmacy. Gartner received her referrals from one of the three Honduran doctors after they identified patients she could possibly help.

The hygiene packs, given out at the clinic set up inside a local school, consisted of a bar of soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, dental floss, and shampoo, which were given to kids. Packs for men and women included the same essentials but also stocked sanitary products for women and pregnancy prevention tools for men.

The three clinic days saw just under 600 patients needing dental procedures like cavity fillings and tooth extraction, medical care and occupational therapy including distribution of equipment such as wrist braces, arm slings, walkers, canes, and crutches, as well as prescriptions from the pharmacy, which were luggage bags full of donated medicine.

“These clinics are only set up once every six months, so you can tell people are trying to stock up on medicine to get them through,” Gartner says of a specific experience. “We had one young woman who came with her three kids. One’s got a cough, one’s got a stomach ache, and one’s got a pain somewhere. Dr. Anna knew she was trying to maximize her visit.”

When the clinic closed up, Gartner put away her therapy luggage and took out her teaching tools to lecture under a mango tree. To her surprise, the Community Health Workers (CHW) Conference saw people from many communities coming to learn about respiratory disease, nutrition, and diabetic management, including women with newborns and kids.

“We’re not just going to give ‘bandaid’ help,” Gartner says of the holistic approach to the medical brigade. “We are including health promotion by teaching children about dental hygiene, CHWs about nutrition, energy conservation and breathing techniques, as well as constructing sanitation stations and assisting with preparation for clean water delivery services.”

The construction phase of the brigade was a shock to Gartner, who had admittedly failed to read the fine print when she enthusiastically signed up for the self-funded trip to Honduras.

“I actually didn’t know about that until my mother had pointed it out to me,” Gartner jokes. “Luckily, the younger student volunteers helped out with a lot of the physical construction, and I photographed a lot of it when I needed to take breaks from digging or building.”

Looking back on the experience, Gartner says she would “definitely do it again,” as it was quite a rewarding trip.

“We were able to do such little things and they were so grateful,” she says. “But as far as need, there’s a lot more work to be done.”