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Making a difference in Belize

Students provide essential diabetes screenings and education

Contact: Curt Smith

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Preventative health care and regular screenings are not always common in the small villages that dot the Central American nation of Belize. This semester, one Central Michigan University professor and his class set out to change that through a partnership with Heart to Heart Belize​ — a humanitarian organization.​

Residents in two Belizean villages lined up to be seen at temporary clinics where students from CMU undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs provided diabetes health screenings. Students worked for as many as six hours per day checking patients’ vitals and body mass index, looking for circulatory issues, providing blood sugar tests, and consulting with villagers to address other symptoms. 

“It was so rewarding just to see how appreciative they were to be able to go to a clinic,” said Samantha Paine, a student from Fremont earning a Master of Science in Administration degree with a focus on philanthropy and fundraising and an international health certificate. 

The class of about a dozen students was led by James Johnson, a professor in The Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions​ at CMU. Johnson has partnered with health organizations, Belize’s Ministry of Health and students to offer health services and information each year for more than a decade. Students saw more than 290 patients ranging in age from several months to 90 years old in Benque and Bullet Tree near the town of Saint Ignacio and Belize’s western border with Guatemala. Throughout their visit, the class worked together with Heart to Heart representatives, faith leaders and other local residents to bridge significant language barriers in order to listen to and communicate with patients.​
“We had the chance to see different medical and cultural perspectives,” said Sterling Heights native Kristina Hasanaj, a first-year master’s student in exercise physiology who earned a bachelor’s in kinesiology and exercise science from CMU last May.

Johnson and two students — a nurse practitioner and registered nurse who were granted special permission by the Ministry of Health to practice in Belize — were present to oversee the screenings and answer more complex health questions. Having a collection of students at various stages in their training and education provided an opportunity to not only learn from the expertise of their professor and representatives from Heart to Heart Belize, but also each other.

“It gave each of us the opportunity to teach and be taught in many different fields,” Paine said. “You could talk to anyone in our group and feel comfortable. Everyone was able to learn from everyone else.”

Paine and her classmates wrote journal entries describing their experiences including one cultural and a professional lesson and a personal insight each day. 

“One of the things I will take away from the experience is the importance of stepping outside the box no matter what you are doing and learn something new,” Paine said.

In addition to clinics, the delegation also made home visits and worked in classrooms to educate youth on preventative care and healthy eating habits to help them avoid diabetes. 

“My biggest takeaway was how much there is to see and understand in the world. This experience has inspired me to do more to serve underserved communities,” Hasanaj said.​

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