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KU School of Medicine-Salina students perform health screenings and teach life skills at clinic in Peru

Students from the Salina Student Medical Outreach group volunteered at a clinic for children in Peru, experiencing first-hand the challenges of providing care in an environment with few resources.

Four students stand together in the airport holding a sign that says welcome Vanessa, Dawson, Alexandra and Kacie
KU School of Medicine-Salina students (left to right) Vanessa Loomis, Dawson Clark, Kacie Rohlman and Alexandra Corns arrive in Peru for an educational and cultural experience.

Earlier this academic year, four third-year KU School of Medicine-Salina students traveled to Lima, Peru, where they volunteered at Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru (CASP), a non-profit non-governmental educational organization that serves a community of people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and other developmental delays.

Named for Helen Keller’s teacher, CASP serves 400 students and their families at its campus in the San Miguel District of Lima. Founded by Liliana Mayo, Ph.D., a University of Kansas alumna and now an adjunct professor in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at KU, the center offers a wide array of services in an area with few health care resources.

Dawson Clark, Alexandra Corns, Vanessa Loomis and Kacie Rohlman, third-year medical students who are all part of the Salina Student Medical Outreach group, made the trip to Peru. While there, they performed a wide variety of tasks, including routine screenings for high-blood pressure and measuring blood-sugar levels for staff there, who struggle to receive preventive care.

“We also taught CPR, choking response techniques and how to use the backboards in emergencies, and we distributed earthquake kits,” said Corns, who noted that teaching practical health care skills was her favorite part of the trip. 

“A lot of families come to get some kind of answer about diagnoses they previously received, but don’t understand,” Clark said. For example, one child had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder by a local physician, but the family believed the child had “caught” autism. “Our doctors could provide a better understanding of their diagnosis.”

Four students pose close together for a selfie
The Salina Student Medical Outreach group raised money for the
trip that focuses on humanitarian efforts in the San Miguel District
of Lima, Peru.

The students believe trips like this are an excellent way to inform their own educations.

“For the first couple of years of med school, the cases you work on are thought exercises and the limit is your imagination,” explained Clark, who wants to return to his hometown, Great Bend, Kansas, eventually to practice medicine. “While learning, we can order any tests we want to ensure we are thinking of all possibilities … but in Peru, it’s the opposite. You have limited resources going in, and you must figure out how to confidently get to the answer with the tools at your disposal.”

Tyler Hughes, M.D., dean of KU School of Medicine-Salina, is impressed with the work students are willing to do to make these trips happen.

“This is a great learning experience for the students,” Hughes said, noting that the students also plan and run a fundraising event to support the trips as well as work through all the logistics of travel to another country. “This is entirely student-driven.”

Hughes noted that the trips began with a group of nontraditional Salina students who had previous experiences in Haiti. Before the pandemic, the trips had taken place annually.

“Our students learn a lot about medicine in another country, but they also learn a lot of life skills that will serve them in good stead in a lot of areas,” Hughes said. “The students learn a lot overcoming many challenges, but it’s teaching us as a faculty as well. It’s incredible the depth of ability that these students have.”

While all four students are in their third year, in the future the program will advocate for first- and second-year students to go on the Peru trip. “Because of COVID-19, we were unable to travel for a couple of years, so that’s why the four of us went in 2023,” Loomis said.

The volunteers get a wide variety of experiences as part of the package. “Peruvians and the staff at CASP welcomed us with open arms, and everybody felt included in their family right away,” Loomis said. “The first day started with the pledge of allegiance to Peru and raising the Peruvian flag, followed by a Peruvian dance performance for welcoming volunteers.”

The trip is supported 100% from fundraising efforts by the Salina Student Medical Outreach (SMO) group, explained Laura Easterday, program coordinator for KU School of Medicine-Salina. “The Salina Student Medical Outreach group focuses on humanitarian efforts both locally and globally,” she said. “Founded by Salina medical students in 2019, SMO has since become the most thriving student organization on the Salina campus. The SMO leaders take initiative each year to fundraise and seek opportunities for both volunteerism and philanthropy.”

The SMO hosts a special event every year to raise funds. “Invitations go out to every physician in Salina,” said Clark, the fundraising chair. “It’s a great evening with a three-course meal, live and silent auctions — with all prizes and food coming from businesses throughout Salina.” It’s a big night, with students doing everything from checking people in to dishing out the food.

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