Tammi Bailey

On a hot and humid June 25, nine students, Jason Speaks, my colleague from the Westminster Campus Nursing faculty, and I arrived in Punta Gorda, Belize, for a 10-day service-learning course.

Our nursing and pre-nursing students and an administrative assistant for Health Professions at the Boulder County Campus were eager to learn about the free health care system of Belize and provide “hands on” assistance for people in town and out in small villages.

I’d like to share some of what we learned during our travels through this warm and welcoming country.

Our first day was full of lectures about the indigenous people of Belize, a mix of Mayan, Garifuna, Guatemalan, and Caribbean peoples, and their health customs.

The main health problems are hypertension, diabetes, wounds, skin problems, and malnutrition. Many people still use the abundance of medicinal plants in the rain forest for ailments.

The death rate for children under 5 is 25 percent, often from respiratory illnesses. Many of the thatched-roof homes are heated with wood stoves, leading to respiratory problems for everyone.

The government is trying to have all first babies born in a hospital, ensuring a good evaluation of potential future problems for mom and baby. Breastfeeding is encouraged to improve the health of babies, and most clinics are “bottle free.”

HIV is a severe problem and “safe sex” posters and free condoms are everywhere. Alcohol and drug use is problematic, but they have no treatment centers or programs available at this time.

We participated in a two-day health fair at the polyclinic in Punta Gorda, teaching hygiene, nutrition, birth control, dental care and checking blood pressures and blood glucose levels for 150 people each day.

On three other days, we drove over rough roads to rural clinics and homes to check on people.

A tour of the small hospital and polyclinic in Punta Gorda was very discouraging to us because of their lack of resources, but the nurses are cheerful and dedicated. Two nurses work in the clinic for hundreds of visits to the one or two physicians. The hospital has one nurse for a woman’s five-bed ward, a men’s five-bed ward, a six-crib pediatric ward and Labor and Delivery. Laundry was washed and hung on the lines in the back yard of the hospital. Very ill patients are transferred to Belize City hospital, several hours away by truck or car.

However, the people were warm and friendly. Laughter and children’s smiles are the same everywhere. Simple toys, stickers, and balls got games started right away. The Belizean government is trying to improve the access to health care while respecting the customs and cultures of its diverse people. We are very excited and ready to go back next year.

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