USF medical and veterinary students make impact in Dominican Republic

May 31, 2022

They line up, several dozen deep, and wait for their turn. Whether the Dominican Republic residents are seeking medical attention for themselves or their pets, they often display a day’s worth of patience—all because a contingent from the University of Saint Francis stands ready to help.

USF Professor Dr. Amy Obringer’s annual trip to Haiti (temporarily shifted to the Dominican Republic for safety reasons) provides students with hands-on experience and fresh perspective on life in another part of the world. In both respects, students return with newfound appreciation for the need to help others.

“Every single person on the trip would say the people of the Dominican Republic made a bigger difference to us than the other way around,” Obringer said.

Obringer’s group, which spent May 9-13 in the Dominican Republic, included pre-med students, nursing students, pre-physician assistant students, pre-veterinarian students and a psychology student. The students were Cydney Christensen of Swanton, Ohio, Eliana Serdynski of Waukesa, Wisconsin, Elana Mann of Bluffton, Indiana, Jasmin Hoot of Kendallville, Indiana, Tianah Stuff-Kelso, Tyra Grischke and Maria Solis Valtierra of Fort Wayne, Josh Pedretti of Ontario, Canada, and alumna Olivia Obringer of Decatur, Indiana. Dr. Nate James (a USF alumnus), nurse midwife Michelle Hileman, veterinarian Dr. Paula Johnson, USF Professor Dr. Monica Heller and fourth-year veterinary student Floyd Johnson from Purdue University provided valuable guidance on the trip.

The medical portion of the group treated nearly 100 people—primarily women and children—and the veterinarian portion of the group treated more than 230 animals, including dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, mules and pigs.

“From a student perspective, it was an interesting experience because we could have significant interactions with patients,” said Grischke, who will attend Indiana University School of Medicine this fall. “They definitely needed help, but they were so optimistic and so joyful and grateful. That community was happier than any community I’ve seen in America. It definitely made you feel like you were doing a good thing, surrounded by good people.”

The specific individual needs were sometimes minor, but the lack of regular healthcare attention led to the long lines. Most residents do not receive consistent medical attention. Obringer said USF’s reputation for helping during a short stay always prompts a large turnout.

“I heard about this trip as a freshman and I immediately decided ‘I’m going on this, no questions asked,’” Grischke said. “Most people want to go and help but they can be concerned about aspects of traveling to another country. It was not even a factor once we were there. I felt completely safe—any students who have a desire to give back should not be scared or worry about the ‘what ifs.’”

Obringer incorporated veterinary students into the trip in 2019 and revived that idea again for 2022. Raising farm animals is of major importance for families in the Dominican Republic. They welcome the chance for their animals to receive medical attention, including neutering and deworming. The USF group also provided dog collars and leashes to the dog owners. (Anyone interested in donating new or used collars and leashes should contact Obringer at [email protected].)

“For me, it was amazing to see the community there and how they would come to help their animals,” Stuff-Kelso, a graduate of East Allen University, said. “Some of them don’t understand what a veterinarian does but it was amazing to see them come get help for their animals. They were excited to get care for their animals and provide further for their families.”

The veterinary students and the medical students embraced the opportunity to see each other in action, too.

“I didn’t have the human connection the pre-meds had, where one of the days they had something like 115 patients lining up at the door,” Stuff-Kelso said. “It was amazing to see them get that experience. We had to corral dogs and horses and sometimes they’d come over and help us. It was great to see all of us working together.”

“Our schools are similar in some ways, but I’d never had interactions with the veterinary students,” Grischke said. “It was really good to see their perspective and it gave me a whole new level of respect for them.”

Obringer intends to keep taking students to the Dominican Republic until safety in Haiti improves. She should have no problem continuing to find more students.

“I’m already planning how I can go back as a med student,” Grischke said. “I wanted to go back before I even left for home. This experience solidified why I want to be the medical field. It’s about passion and making a difference.”