'It humbles you,' pre-med student says of volunteer journey to India


Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 11:57 p.m.

While most University of Florida students were celebrating Christmas at home, Wendy Alderman was on a 20-hour car ride returning from the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Alderman, 20, traveled to India over the break with four other UF students. They visited the Taj Mahal on Christmas Eve but spent much of the 10-day trip volunteering at a hospital and school in a rural village in northwest India.

The five women, all pre-med majors, helped with a birth at the hospital soon after arriving. The mother had walked five miles to the hospital while in labor, Alderman said.

The baby's birth was an example of the conditions the group encountered. The delivery was no nonsense, with no family allowed in the room, and done with older equipment than used in the U.S.

"They did the best with what they had, and it worked," Alderman said.

The students observed surgeries funded by the local Lions Club. They helped staff with checking in patients and doctors with post-operation duties.

"They benefited from it and, of course, we benefited from it," Alderman said.

Another part of the group's focus was spreading an anti-tobacco message. Alderman said tobacco use was prevalent in India, especially chewing tobacco.

The group made a presentation to some students at the school explaining health problems caused by tobacco use. Alderman said the 13- to 16-year-old students, who were among the students at the school who spoke English, seemed receptive to the message.

The teachers "said it did help," she said. "It did get across to the students."

The UF group, members of the university's Doctors Without Borders student organization, included Jasmine Nebrahjani, Ami Patel, Krupa Patel and Ashley Van Putten. The hospital and school were located on a compound owned by Ami Patel's family.

Alderman said she learned the importance of extended family in India on the trip, a lesson illustrated by a large wedding in the village that two of the students attended. She said they were enthusiastically welcomed into the event and were brought into the family's wedding photo.

"The parents of the bride and groom were so excited that we were there," she said.

The students also soaked in local culture in other ways, including watching a Bollywood film and traveling to the closest city to go to the market. Alderman said the chaotic and stratified city life contrasted with the village, where people were humble and doctors didn't even have malpractice insurance.

"They all trusted each other more," she said.

She plans to make another trip to India after she enters medical school, when she could more actively take part in procedures at the hospital. She would encourage others to do the same.

"It humbles you, definitely," she said.

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