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To Nicaragua with care: Sterling med student changes lives, including her own

STERLING – Coughing and thirsting, rural Nicaraguans would patiently wait for hours in the beating sun to see Laura K. Hulteen, 20, of Sterling, and other Augustana College students.

They were there for the free medical clinic, so spartan that lawn chairs served as furniture.

Some came with conditions that could be fatal without treatment. But they can’t afford to travel to cities for medical services. So, from Feb. 21 to March 5, the students brought services to them.

“I would go back a million times if I could,” said Hulteen, a 2007 Sterling High School graduate who is a junior at Augustana majoring in biology and pre-med.

It was the first time Hulteen has left the United States, encouraged by hearing others advocate the mission.

“If I have the ability to go and help someone, why shouldn’t I?” she said.

But first, funds for medical supplies were raised from Christ Lutheran School and Messiah Lutheran Church, both in Sterling, and from family and friends.

Arriving after a 6-hour flight, Laura was “kind of overwhelmed” by being swarmed by locals. Children begged for money; adults asked to carry her bags for tips.

Laura saw homes without doors or windows, stray dogs roaming, and dirt ground with little grass. In contrast, she also noticed beautiful mountains, fields, bodies of water and stunning aged architecture in her travels throughout Managua, Granada, Leon and Masaya.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, but also one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 a day.

Laura and her team set up clinics outdoors, often in a tent or covered pavilion. They saw as many as 200 patients a day. Her team worked from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“I wouldn’t even notice the time,” Laura said “It would go by so fast.”

Each patient described symptoms, through a translator, to two or three students, who then made a preliminary diagnosis and consulted with one of five Nicaraguan doctors, who made an official diagnosis. If needed, the patient received free medicine or supplies.

“They all seemed so grateful,” Laura said. “A lot of people would give you a hug before they left.”

Many suffered from dehydration, others from parasites in the water supply. Lacking produce, others developed anemia from malnutrition.

“They usually have diets of rice and beans,” Laura said, “because that’s all they can afford.”

Some had coughs, colds, scabies or gout.

One woman’s disease was sadness, so acute she’d attempted suicide. Laura’s team prescribed special treatment – a hug.

“We just gave her a hug and supported her.”

The team gave toothbrushes to kids. Some patients didn’t brush their teeth and never had seen a dentist.

More than 15 aspiring doctors and nurses were on the team, that also included a biology professor, two alumni who are doctors, a Quad Cities-area dentist and four office staff.

The professor, Dr. Dara Wegman-Geedey, regularly sent e-mail updates to the students’ families.

“We could tell they were in good hands,” said Hulteen’s mother, Rhonda

Laura said she learned about herself and her abilities while in Nicaragua.

She returned feeling blessed, suddenly aware of many things she once took for granted, like putting her toothbrush under water without fearing parasites; or transportation, after meeting a student who walked 5 miles to school

She also learned to not feel so stressed and rush so much.

“They really take time to relax and enjoy things,” Laura said. “I think that’s something I need to do more.”

Laura also believes the experience prepared her for a medical career.

“It just gave ... a little heads-up to what the future holds,” she said.

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