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Changing Lives with Global Medical Brigades

University of Florida pre-med student Michael Saba will never forget the smile shot his way by a little boy in Panama during his time there with Global Medical Brigades. Saba is one of the 83,000-plus students from 500-plus schools involved in Global Brigades, the largest student-funded humanitarian organization in the world, according to a recent press release

“We were in a remote area of the Darien region and hundreds of patients lined up to see the doctors and dentists we were shadowing,” Saba, a senior from Tampa, recalled. “Most days, we took vitals, helped with triage, or screened patients.”

On that morning, Saba was helping dentists administer fluoride treatments to patients in the dental clinic. “There was this little boy – eight maybe nine years old,” Saba recalled. “At first, he was extremely nervous but after he received the fluoride treatment that completely changed.”

The boy began grinning from ear to ear. “He was so thankful and proud to show off his teeth,” Saba said. “He and his family traveled hours from their village to the clinic and waited even longer to see us, but no one complained. They were just grateful for something as simple as a fluoride treatment – something we all take for granted here in the states – that was an eye-opening moment for me.”

In its 18-year history, Global Brigades’ student participants have raised over $100 million in aid, which has provided 1.5 million patients with medical and dental treatment, established 106 community banks, and installed 56 water systems, bringing clean, drinkable water to more than 32,000 people.

“Most students study some form of health care, engineering, law or business specialty area,” said Dr. Shital Vora, Global Brigades CEO and co-founder, who helped create the nonprofit as an undergrad at Marquette in 2003. “But we have students in almost every major, from colleges of all sizes, and even high schools participating alongside our teams in Ghana, Honduras, Greece, Panama, and Guatemala.”

Last spring, Vora and her leadership team made an organization-saving pivot to virtual programming in the face of COVID-19. Now, Zoom – instead of airplanes – whisks students to Latin America, West Africa, and Greece in real-time. The program – called TeleBrigades – continues to bring hope to residents of resource-limited communities, while providing students with hands-on leadership and career-building skills via virtual experiential learning.

“And the best part,” Vora said. “Students are immersed in these communities and make a true impact for people living in poverty while never leaving their laptop, classroom or dorm.”

Saba, who participated in person on a Brigade to Panama, as well as a virtual TeleBrigade to Greece, found both empowering. “When I went to Panama, it was all about interacting with patients and getting hands-on experiences, which I just couldn’t get here in the states,” Saba said. “With TeleBrigades, you get the opportunity to see through the doctor’s eyes and think through diagnosis and care in real-time.”

The experience propelled Saba full circle as his family is from the Middle East. “Traveling in Lebanon as a young child I remember seeing Syrian refugees on the side of the road,” Saba recalled. “Now, through my TeleBrigade experience, I was able to help care for refugees in Global Brigades’ clinics in Greece without ever leaving Florida. That was powerful for me as some of the doctors I virtually shadowed and their patients spoke Arabic, which was the first language I ever heard growing up.”

Since Global Brigades’ pivot to virtual learning last May, more than 3,800 students from 160 schools have participated in the virtual poverty-eradication program.

“That’s what I love about Global Brigades,” concluded Saba. “Global Brigades makes such an impact in people’s lives, both those in-country who we treat and the students who participate. Being involved reassured me 100 percent that going into health and medicine is what I want to do, and I just couldn’t have gotten that experience through any other opportunity on- or off-campus.”

To get involved in the Global Brigades chapter on your campus or to create your own, click here.

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