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More than 1,000 in Dominican impacted by UNG nursing group

Dominican trip 2016
Cameron Harper (center) and a fellow nursing student work at a deworming station outside of La Romana in the Dominican Republic.

Cameron Harper stepped off of his first-ever airplane flight into heavy humidity, unaware of how his weeklong service-learning adventure in the Dominican Republic would shape his life and hundreds of others. In May, Harper was part of a small group of University of North Georgia (UNG) nursing students and faculty who provided medical care to impoverished sugar-cane-harvesting villages called bateyes.

His carry-on bag had personal items, but his checked bag was packed to the 50-pound limit with medical supplies, as were the other students' bags. Almost immediately, Harper began sweating — something he said never stopped.

"There was definitely some culture shock," said Harper, a rising senior. "They didn't have very many paved roads, there was no air conditioning, and I wasn't expecting the level of poverty that we saw."

After the team of four faculty and 26 students sorted and organized medications and equipment, their bus pulled up to the first village.

"Masses of people started walking up when they saw us," Harper said. "We set up and got to work at several stations, including deworming, triage, exams and physicals, dentistry, pharmacy, and optometry."

This was the first time on the annual trip that a UNG team was able to provide preventative care, thanks to a charitable healthcare grant. They also distributed hygiene products, vitamins with iron for anemia treatment and prevention, as well as oral health items such as toothbrushes. The Dominican Republic has only 1.49 physicians and 1.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people, which is about half as many as in the United States, according to the CIA World Factbook.

It wasn't until the final day that Harper reached his "breaking point."

"We had a man come in who was on crutches with a towel wrapped around his leg, asking for pain killers. He was so friendly and polite," Harper said. "When I entered the area where he was being examined, I noticed one of my fellow students crying. I asked her what was wrong; she just pointed at the man."

In an October motorcycle accident, the man had suffered a broken leg so severe that bone protruded from his skin in two places. Unable to pay for surgery and lacking insurance, his treatment at the hospital had consisted only of closing the wounds with stitches.

"It was really hard to see that," Harper said. "We were in disbelief that he had been in that much pain for so long, and that he had survived that kind of exposure. I just went back outside and cried, because I realized how fortunate we are in the U.S."

The team cleaned and dressed the wound and gave him painkillers, but could not do more. Determined to help, a graduate student and several other volunteers pooled resources to pay for the man to receive full treatment at the hospital. Shortly after he was admitted to the hospital, the team left to return to the U.S.

"We are grateful to be able to offer care as well as this opportunity to students," said Dr. Elaine Taylor, a professor of nursing at UNG who has been leading the Dominican trip for five years. "Experiences like these build well-rounded perspectives and truly help our students, like Cameron, prepare to become leaders in a global society."

The annual trip to La Romana, the country's third-largest city, is made in partnership with Rivers of the World, a Dawsonville-based international ministry group, and is supported by UNG's Center for Global Engagement.

Harper is currently serving in an externship at the Shepherd Center, a top rehabilitation hospital for brain and spinal cord injuries. After graduating from UNG in May 2017, he wants to work in an intensive care unit, and is considering returning to UNG to become a nurse practitioner.

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