BIG RAPIDS – What began as an opportunity to assist underserved populations became a career-defining moment for three pre-medical and three pre-dentistry students from Ferris State University.
This opportunity was created through an eight-day spring break trip to Penonome, Panama, where these six students participated in a medical and dental mission trip.
The career-defining moment, however, was the result of making a powerful impact in the lives of others; their act of service left these students with a confidence in their intended career path at Ferris and a roused motivation to see it through to the end.
“The trip was full of a lot of firsts for us,” pre-medical senior Matt Bottke stated. “It was the first time that we’d done anything related to our field in the real world. The trip was eye-opening and helped me know that this really was something I wanted to do. You can learn all the science you want, but it doesn’t tell you if you want to be a doctor or not.”
Pre-dentistry and Applied Biology sophomore Caitlin Knapp added, “I knew I wanted to be a dentist from shadowing, but going there and actually being able to perform procedures and interact with the patients really made me decide that I wanted to be a dentist. Seeing the impact that we had just by giving simple cleanings, or teaching them to brush their teeth or showing them how to floss, was incredible. It has motivated me more in school – I want to do well; it was life-changing.”
Knapp organized the trip through International Service Learning, an international educational agency which coordinates medical and volunteer teams of university students from across the world to provide services to under-served populations in Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa.
The six students – Cody Becksvoort, Matt Bottke, Tracy Elliot, Caitlin Knapp, Eli Sager and Nicole Totten – served along side other university and college students from California, Florida and Texas. Those who participated were between the ages of 19 and 26 and were either pre-medical or pre-dentistry students; there were 17 students in all.
“We came from different pasts that got us there,” Bottke noted. “But, we all had the same mindset. By the end of the eight days, it was like we’d known each other for years.”
The students set up clinics in the villages, working side-by-side with one doctor and one dentist who were Panama natives. The students had one training day in which they were debriefed and practiced basic procedures that they would complete during their trip.
Traveling by bus, the students went to two villages and walked door-to-door conducting health censuses and giving residents appointment slips for the clinics; the clinics, however, were open to anyone who could get to them.
Once this had been done, the students were free to work in the clinics, each group of students performing tasks that were relative to their studies and intended career fields.
Pre-dentistry senior Tracy Elliot stated, “We were able to actually perform the fillings and extractions ourselves. The doctor just guided our hand the first time and then he let us do it on our own. I knew that if I could do those now, I could do them forever.”
In the 3.5 days that the students worked in the clinics, they were able to serve 120 residents; their goal was to serve 24 patients per day. “We definitely exceeded our goal!” Knapp stated. “Everyone was willing to help more people.”
While in Panama, pre-dentistry sophomore Nicole Totten explained the students were able to experience both the culture of the residents, see their living conditions and serve them.
Totten stated, “There was a good balance between work and rest. During the day, we did dental and medical work and interacted with the people; but at night, we had free time so we were able to walk around and explore, experiencing the culture, and getting to know each other.”
The group of Ferris students went to Panama hoping to experience a different culture, help the natives of the country and gain experience that would help them later on in life. They left Panama having achieved all of these goals, but they also left with a confidence in themselves, their ability and the steps they’ve taken in their educational pathway. A humbling experience that left “no room for regrets,” these students were changed by their decision to go to Panama – a decision that will surely affect future decisions.
“There was this little boy who came into the medical clinic who was so full of energy and so happy,” pre-medical sophomore Cody Becksvoort concluded. “He had scabies and the itchy rashes from it, but he just kept on going. When he smiled, all of his front teeth were just decayed and gone; that just has to hurt. He has to be in so much pain, but he just kept smiling; he was so happy to just be alive. It was amazing to see that basic medical and dental help is life-changing for them. It was eye-opening.”