campus news

Medical trip to Belize highlights personal growth, service

On the left, Linda Paine Hughes and Gail Bain Markowski pose with Molli Oldenburg (standing left), Caitlyn Tiedemann (standing right), Emily Gaghich (left) and Rena Kessel (right) next to a mural along Orange Walk, Belize.


Published February 14, 2024

Caitlyn Tiedemann.
“This trip to Belize has changed my outlook on life and has made me rethink the things I value. ”
Caitlyn Tiedemann, adult-gerontology nurse practitioner student
School of Nursing

Listen to the glowing way nursing graduate student Caitlyn Tiedemann describes the medical mission global immersion experience during which she and a small group of UB nursing and pharmacy students and faculty spent their winter break supporting the needs of rural and impoverished people in Belize.

“This was definitely a humbling and enriching experience,” says Tiedemann, an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner student who is no stranger to fieldwork in underserved communities. “This trip to Belize has changed my outlook on life and has made me rethink the things I value.

“Also, this experience empowered me and increased my confidence in providing diverse health care,” she says. “This was an incredible experience and if given the opportunity again, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

Her only complaint: “It wasn’t long enough!”

The photos coming back from the group’s two-week experience in Belize tell the story. UB students and faculty meet with children and parents in modest surroundings. They carry backpacks past towering plants on their way to local homes. They treat children in an ad-hoc clinic at a local school.

“The biggest impression I had from Belize was the people’s strength and emphasis on family and sense of community,” says Tiedemann. “For example, when we visited homes, many families were not available, since they were at work. However, neighbors and friends said they would let those who were working know about the clinic so they could receive treatment as well. It also seemed like everyone knew each other and were happy to be around one another.”

Tiedemann’s deep impressions were not unusual, according to Molli Oldenburg, clinical associate professor and global initiatives coordinator in the School of Nursing, who along with faculty from the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, supervised the experience.

Both schools wanted to provide students with an interprofessional clinical experience to learn and explore another culture and environment, Oldenburg explains. Taking part in clinicals in a health care system vastly different from what students are used to helps them appreciate the challenges of public health and deepens their understanding of global health disparities, she says. The medical mission allowed students to learn from, and work alongside, local Belizean nurses, community health workers, pharmacists and doctors. 

Personal growth and expanding the horizons for future nursing and pharmacy leaders were added bonuses.

“It’s one thing to teach students about social determinants of health,” Oldenburg notes. “And it’s another for them to see the impact firsthand. The goal is to boost their knowledge in hopes for better retention that they will use moving forward in their professional careers.”

The pharmacy area is being prepared at the start of a clinic day. This clinic was set up at an elementary school in a local village, where patients were seen for primary care by the nursing team and two Belizean physicians. The pharmacy team, along with a Belizean pharmacist, then dispensed medications, counseled patients and assisted the nursing team with the patient interview process.

‘Eye-opening’ experiences

The students taking part in the Belize trip were no strangers to fieldwork, and their experience left a deep impression on those participating.

“My experience in Belize was eye-opening. I learned more in a few days than I could have possibly learned in school,” says Katherine Beikirch, a pharmacy student from the class of 2026. “I am now more confident working with an interdisciplinary team and with patients of diverse backgrounds.”

From left, Linda Paine Hughes, Gail Bain Markowski, Caitlyn Tiedemann, Emily Gaghich, Molli Oldenburg, Rena Kessel, Sophia Justo, Emily Pandel and Skylar Bard at Mayan ruins in Belize.

The medical mission trip to the Central American country included orientation about Belizean history, food, culture and language. Students performed home visits working with a community health worker in San Juan and a Belizean nurse who was working at the local northern regional hospital. The team split into groups visiting homes assessing living conditions, the need for acute health care and providing health promotion education.

“This was an important piece of learning. It was a great clinical experience for students to see and remember that social determinants of health affect individuals long before the health care system ever gets involved,” says Oldenburg.

“It was also vital for the students to have this experience of home visits to bring back to their clinical practice at home, as it is a reminder that you cannot assume that the walls that surround a patient in the hospital or clinic will be similar to the walls that surround them at home; meaning a patient may not have access to items that we may take for granted, like running water, flushable toilets, transportation, education.”

The nursing and pharmacy students also set up a clinic in a local school. Each clinic included a nurse practitioner student, undergraduate nursing student, pharmacy student and either a UB nursing faculty member or local Belizan doctor. 

There was a station for fluoride varnish application for children and adults.  Oral health education was provided. The community health worker was trained in fluoride varnish application and extra supplies were left with her to continue to treat the community. The program included daily post-clinic conferences led by the local health care workers to discuss cases and sustainability.

There was also a station set up where UB pharmacy students and faculty worked with a Belizean pharmacist to dispense medications and counsel patients on medication recommendations and use.

"When I see so many people and children in the world with fewer resources or access to resources than myself, I feel very grateful for all that I have in my life, and this gratitude motivates me to dedicate as many resources — money, time, effort — as I can to serve others,” says Kalpesh Desai, assistant dean for inclusive excellence for the pharmacy school.

“Seeing the smiles of gratitude on the patients in Belize positively improved my mental well-being and rejuvenated my soul.”