In a small village on the other side of the world, West Virginia University is having a big impact.
Nakavika Village in the Namosi Highlands, on Viti Levu Island in Fiji, is home to around 250 people. The village is situated in a rainy jungle. It has only one dirt road, and one flushing toilet.
The terrain of the village makes it difficult for the people who live there to receive proper medical care, and many of them frequently go without.
In April, three WVU senior medical students and two faculty members will relocate their lives in order to provide medical care to the villagers. Later on a group from WVU’s Engineers without Borders hopes to follow to work on water issues.
The medical group will spend four weeks in Fiji. Their first and last week will be spent working at a hospital in the city of Suva, where they will assist local doctors. The middle two weeks will be spent in Nakavika Village, where it is estimated as many as 3,000 locals will travel to receive care.
The students and faculty will screen each patient as they come in and determine how and what they will need to do to treat them.
“It is important for us to reach out beyond our own world and participate in the health care needs of poorer nations,” said Dr. Gregory Juckett, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and director of the WELL WVU International Travel Clinic. “It is very important for our students to experience this and it can be life changing.”
Since the group will only be in the village for a short period of time, they also want to try to teach the villagers basic first-aid and prevention skills.
Juckett and Palmer will be overseeing the students on the trip.
Not only will be the trip be beneficial to the villagers, but it will also expose the students to medical conditions, diseases and ways of practicing medicine that they are not likely to encounter in the United States, Palmer said.
For one medical student the trip is personal.
Rebecca Hopper Seay, of Charleston, worked closely with Nakavika Village for a year in 2004 after she finished her undergraduate degree in parks, recreation and tourism at WVU. She and her husband, JB, managed a white water rafting company, called Rivers Fiji.
Shortly after they arrived in Fiji, the Seays found out they were pregnant with their first child.
Click below to hear Rebecca tell her story.
The Seays were able to afford private medical care, unlike many of the people in the country.
“I was lucky I could pay what was an insurmountable sum for most families there, but really was far less than what we pay for healthcare,” said Rebecca, who is now a fourth-year medical student. “I had access whereas a lot of women didn’t and lots of people didn’t, not just by the economy but by geography. If the closest doctor is on another island, you can’t just go.”
After seeing the need for medical care, the Seays have been sending basic first-aid supplies to the village once a year. But, Rebecca has been anxious to return to the village.
“When I returned to the U.S., I was really acutely aware of how lucky I was to have health care and that made me want to go and do something to fill the void,” she said.
Engineers Without Borders
A contributing factor to illness and disease within the village is their water system. The villagers get their drinking water from local streams. During the rainy season, runoff from the farms in the village flows into the water and exposes the people to a variety of medical conditions.
In order to better combat the health problems of the village and create a more permanent solution, Juckett brought the problem to WVU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
The students in the organization were eager to help.
Plans are currently being arranged for two engineering students and one faculty member to travel to Nakavika Village to help improve the water system.
“I feel like everyone has the right to clean water, so if we can help somebody get that the better,” said Samantha Eberhardt, a sophomore industrial engineering student from Baltimore, Md. who will be traveling to Fiji.
The students plan to spend a week in the village testing the water and taking pictures to determine where the runoff is coming from. They will install some small treatment systems to provide a temporary solution, but plan to return for the next several years to implement a more permanent system, said Lian-Shin Lin, professor of environmental engineering at WVU. Lin will be traveling with the students.
“Our goal is to make a system that is easy for them to take care of themselves, something low cost and low maintenance,” said Shelby Taylor, a junior electrical and biometric systems engineering student from Baltimore, Md. and coordinator of the trip.
The students are awaiting approval from the national Engineers Without Borders chapter, but plan to travel to the area later in the year.
If it weren’t for Kelly and Nate Bricker, former faculty members at WVU and owners of Rivers Fiji, the University would not have been aware of the health needs of Fiji.
The Brickers, who now work at the University of Utah, have worked with WVU’s Adventure Fiji program and Greg Corio, the program’s director, since 2002. Through Adventure Fiji several WVU students travel to Fiji each year to learn the ropes of Rivers Fiji and the business of sustainable tourism.
The Brickers started Rivers Fiji in 1998 with the goal of proving a quality tourism experience for visitors, all while benefiting the local community economically and environmentally.
“Most tourism occurs on the coast lines and we wanted to bring economic alternatives to this area. They are typically the forgotten people,” she said. “We also realized there were a couple of places impacted by illegal logging and these were amazing natural assets to the community and we wanted to protect those.”
It took several years, but Kelly said, the company has been successful in meeting their goals.
They serve approximately 5,000 visitors a year, bringing in nearly $180,000. The small company also employees more than 20 local residents.
“It has achieved the objective of bringing in economic benefit, and through those tourism dollars we were able to establish protective status of the Upper Navua river,” she said.
The river is now recognized as a Ramsar Site, meaning it is a wetland of international importance. In addition, the business has allowed the Brickers to bring awareness to the importance of protecting the environment and how it is linked to the health of individuals.
Through the Brickers time spent in Fiji with Corio and the Adventure Fiji program, the group began to recognize the area’s need for medical care. Corio brought the issue to Juckett’s attention.
“Greg put the two pieces together,” Kelly said. “We really value the villagers we work with and a healthy community makes healthy people and a healthy environment. It is all connected.”
WVU’s Adventure Fiji program will take place from May 24-June 9 this year.
The six-credit course will teach students about sustainable tourism in the South Pacific.
Students will take a scuba diving course, participate in whitewater rafting and kayaking, Kava ceremonies, zip lining, cave snorkeling and meet with government officials and students from the University of the South Pacific, among other things.
The course explores the social, cultural and environmental impacts of tourism and planning issues. It will also look at the development and meaning of ecotourism, alternative tourism, adventure, natural, cultural and heritage tourism options in the Islands of Fiji.
“The program gives a great global perspective on how through tourism people can keep their culture and protect their land,” Corio said. “The students get an in-depth look at who the Fijians are and an inside view of their culture, while discovering the natural environment and the beauty of the South Pacific.”
Global Health Program
The medical students are traveling to Fiji as part of WVU’s Global Health Program.
Students from every health discipline are encouraged to take part in the global health experience, including medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and allied health.
In addition to Fiji, students can choose to do international health rotations in Barbuda, Guatemala, Ghana, Honduras, India, Italy, China and Peru, among others.
The program also provides an annual course in clinical tropical medicine and traveler’s health.
For more information on WVU’s Global Health Program, visit http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/tropmed/ .
By Colleen DeHart
WVU University Relations/News
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