Published: July 21, 2022
Mission Trip Solidifies Students Healthcare Field Choice
This summer was the first time Jahnel Villalba ’24 had been to Nicaragua and the first she’d been in a surgical room as part of the medical staff. The UT junior, a double major in allied health and biology, joined a team that included part-time faculty in the chemistry department, Dee Dee Brumfield, for the most hands-on and career-affirming experience of her collegiate journey.
Villalba had served as Brumfield’s lab mentor this past fall and had left an impression on her teacher. When Brumfield was prepping this spring for the eight-day mission trip to Leon, Nicaragua, with her cardiologist husband, she thought Villalba’s sharp intellect and curiosity about the medical field would be a good fit for the team of heart surgeons and medical staff. Her Spanish fluency would be a key asset for the group that would be performing pacemaker operations and ablations (surgical treatment to rectify abnormal heart rhythms) at no cost to the patients.
Since she was a kid, Villalba enjoyed doing experiments at home and fell in love with dissections and learning anatomy. She believed without a doubt the medical field was what she wanted to pursue.
After going on trips to the Dominican Republic with her family and bringing supplies including food, clothing and other necessities, she was sure participating in medical mission trips to developing nations to help communities is what she wanted to do.
“I have the ability to become a health care provider, so I intend to use it to help others in countries where the government may not allow the best health care,” Villalba said. “Everyone deserves proper health care; being born in a different country or in a lower socioeconomic standing should not prohibit someone from obtaining adequate care.”
In Nicaragua, Villalba served as a translator between patients and staff and was excited at the opportunity to really test whether a career in health care was the route for her.
The first few days the group ran the clinic, Villalba explained her job was to translate between the doctors, nurses and the patient.
“There was only one other person in the group who spoke Spanish fluently, so I felt a lot of pressure to do my job correctly,” Villalba said.
Brumfield said without Villalba’s translation skills, the group would have had a much more difficult and inefficient time communicating.
“Some of the conversations we must have are stressful because they involve surgery and treatment options for heart disease,” Brumfield said. “These conversations are usually held in a crowded room with a lot going on around us. While I suspected Jahnel would be a great addition to our team having worked with her in a busy and crowded lab, she performed her duties even better than I imagined considering it was her first time translating many of the complex cardiac medical terms and phrases,” Brumfield added.
Some patients came in with Chagas’ disease, Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome, complete heart block, atrial fibrillation, supraventricular tachycardia, bradycardia and heart failure. Patients would come in with a very low heart rate in the 30s to 40s for bradycardic patients or a heart rate that was too fast, over 120 for tachycardia patients, Brumfield explained. While the normal heart rate is 50 to 100 beats per minute at rest.
In addition to the language barrier, some patients were unable to talk much, because they would get out of breath so quickly, a typical symptom of those conditions, Villalba explained.
Chagas disease is caused by a parasite, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 8 million people in Central and South America and Mexico have this disease, which can be life-threatening if left untreated.
What differentiates Villalba from other student volunteers, Brumfield explained, was her calm demeanor.
“She had a soothing effect on patients, who are generally pretty anxious when they come to see the American doctor,” Brumfield said.
Brumfield added that she could tell Villalba is a natural caregiver from her calming interactions with patients and their families, and she has a natural curiosity and outstanding aptitude that is essential to a pursuit in the health care field.
For the medical team, operation days were long and intense — the group would wake up at 6:30 a.m. and come home around midnight — but the results were worth it, Villalba said.
“When we visited the patients' post-op, they looked like they got a whole new life,” she said.