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Published: November 07, 2016

Navy Rescue Swimmers Find Niche with MEDLIFE UT

That caravan heading down I-75 this weekend? The one with the two large SUVs, two Department of Biology vans, a 15-passenger van and the carpooling students? That’s more than 70 UT students heading to Bradenton on a three-day mission to help low-income families with medical and veterinary services.

Starting Friday, Nov. 11, students will assist in a mobile veterinary services outreach, and on Saturday, Nov. 12, and Sunday, Nov. 13, they will assist with a medical services clinic at Manatee Technical College. All events are hosted by the Remote Area Medical (RAM) volunteer corps.

RAM is a nonprofit effort to provide basic medical care to impoverished communities through volunteer physicians, dentists, nurses, health care professionals and students in the health care field.

“This noble nonprofit organization was seen as the perfect opportunity for us to lean in and make a difference,” said Eric Jenkins ’17, vice president of MEDLIFE UT, a national organization whose acronym stands for Medicine, Education and Development for Low-income Families Everywhere.

“MEDLIFE partners with low-income communities in Latin America — and many others — to improve their access to medicine, education and community development initiatives,” said Cody Cox ’17, MEDLIFE UT president, a biology major with a pre-medicine concentration. “The mission of MEDLIFE is achieved in part by the recruitment of motivated students (regardless of major) who will travel to undeveloped countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Tanzania and India to assist physicians, dentists and pharmacists in the execution of mobile clinic patient care.”

The Bradenton effort with RAM is a chance to hone their skills, shadowing the professionals in a big community effort. Back on campus, the group is in the early planning stages of an international mobile clinic.

MEDLIFE UT was started by Jenkins and Cox, who met in the U.S. Navy as helicopter rescue swimmers and deployed together for Operation Enduring Freedom. It’s where their friendship and their fascination with medicine began. As veterans, the two are finding their way as mentors on campus, but also open to learning from their classmates.

“Being a part of MEDLIFE UT has definitely had a personal impact on me. It has helped me to truly appreciate how many amazing students we have at UT that are willing to go above and beyond to help others,” said Jenkins, a biology major with a pre-medicine concentration.

The two started the student organization on the last day of August and have been going full-steam with the help of an executive board the last two months, accumulating more than 400 volunteer hours.

Every Saturday in October they have had a total of 60 students helping build homes with Habitat for Humanity, almost two dozen supporting the Huntington’s Disease Society of America Tampa Team Hope Walk in September and working hands-on with St. Joseph’s Children's Hospital in association with the Special Olympics to ensure medical, dental and vision exams for athletes during MedFest in August.

“The undeniable commitment and self-sacrificing attitude of this organization is inspiring, and makes me want to do better on a daily basis,” said Kylie Iasillo ’17, an allied health major with a concentration in physical therapy studies and a minor in psychology. “I believe this is how and why our organization has developed so successfully, and so quickly because of its purpose — it is an organization that aligns to fulfill our basic human instincts of interacting with one another and lending a helping hand.”

Helen Holvoet ’17, a biology pre-medicine and psychology double major, is an international student from Aarsele, Belgium. She was familiar with the national organization before she came to UT and was excited to be a part of the inaugural group.

Holvoet, who went to high school in Germany, said off-campus volunteer opportunities aren’t well utilized in Europe, so she was attracted to this facet of MEDLIFE. In addition, coming from a place where health care coverage is accessible, Holvoet said she just shakes her head at the struggles some Americans face to find health care.

“I’m looking forward to this mass-shadowing opportunity and especially to the hands-on action. We will really be helping out people here who cannot afford insurance and therefore have no health care. I‘m especially looking forward to helping these people,” Holvoet said.

Future plans for MEDLIFE UT, aside from an international mobile clinic, include the organization of seniors and juniors who mentor younger students and facilitating MCAT study groups.

“Seeing the lives this organization has already changed with the potential to change so many more, no matter how big or small, it certainly feels like founding MEDLIFE UT was well worth the hard work,” Cox said. “Watching the difference this club has made in just a few months, and to be a part of the impact we are making in the community, I just can't imagine the difference MEDLIFE UT will have made in 10 years. That will make it all worth it.”