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Graduate students extend research, outreach efforts to Hispanic populations in Guatemala

As part of an ongoing project to test different Hispanic communities for diabetes, hypertension, and other health issues, a team from Liberty University’s Department of Public & Community Health spent the last week of May in Guatemala, conducting health screenings and training local health professionals to better address the volume of patients with these diseases.

The team of two professors — Dr. Oswald Attin, department chair, and Dr. Gineska Castillo, an assistant professor and instructional mentor — and four Master of Public Health (MPH) students conducted screenings with 350 patients in three rural Guatemalan communities, two of which were severely affected by a hurricane in November. Attin said their findings showed that many of the patients who were suffering from diabetes, malnutrition, high blood pressure, and anemia didn’t know they had these conditions.

“They did not have access to any type of health care,” Attin said. “So we also trained community health workers and local leaders to empower them to help their population. The idea was to create a registry which will be presented to the local leaders so they are aware of the public health issues plaguing their communities.”

The team taught community health workers how to use blood pressure machines, glucometers, and devices for anemia checkups. They also conducted a survey of community members to determine their knowledge of COVID-19 and learn how the pandemic has affected their daily lives. Attin and his team will receive the data from the local health workers in six months and will use it to measure the effectiveness of the medications, advice, and equipment that the team provided there.

Attin decided to bring his team to Guatemala after getting connected with a ministry leader, Sarai Suchite, who spoke at his church in Lynchburg (Iglesia de las Americas) about the dire situation in her country. Citing his department’s mission verse of Proverbs 13:17, “A faithful envoy brings healing,” Attin began to search for a way that Liberty could aid the people of Guatemala.

“We are hoping to continue the work over the coming years and hopefully finish training local leaders and start seeing lower health issues based on our research,” Attin said. “The research will be shared with community leaders and will serve as a stepping stone for the betterment of the population.”

The team from Liberty’s Department of Public & Community Health that screened patients in Guatemala

The efforts in Guatemala came a month after the department held a health fair in Lynchburg, Va., to serve the local Hispanic population with the same goal of connecting those with diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions with the proper healthcare services. Renata Yassa, an MPH student, emphasized that the communities’ limited healthcare resources has been a major factor in the high numbers of hypertension and diabetes in the patients the team screened, and she explained the different situations between the patients she saw in Lynchburg and Guatemala.

“I would ask people in (Lynchburg) if their blood pressure is usually high and they’d say they didn’t take their medicine or they can’t afford the medicine, so some of them had access to the care, but they weren’t getting it,” Yassa said. “In Guatemala, there were many times that I would ask the patient if their blood pressure was usually high and they’d say that they had never had it (measured) before. That really resonated with me because these are 40-, 50-, or 60-year-olds who have never gotten their blood pressure taken in their life.”

“It’s so easy to say to someone that they need to exercise or eat better, but you have to realize the (limited) resources that they have, so I think that’s where the global health aspect came into what we did there,” Yassa added.

The trip to Guatemala, along with the department’s recent efforts to address the growing amount of blood sugar and blood pressure issues in the local Hispanic community, were made possible by a grant from Liberty’s Center for Research and Scholarship (CRS).

“We started the grant process and we are so grateful for Dr. Wu and his team (from CRS) for allowing us a department to continue to bless the communities and research main issues that are leading to their health disparities for 3 years now.”

Attin said that throughout this trip and every other outreach opportunity he and his students take, they have seen God work through them for His glory. He mentioned that he often quotes the verse Deuteronomy 15:11 to his students, which says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

“One thing I tell students is that we are training them to become public health professionals not for accolades but to expand the kingdom,” Attin said. “That is what Training Champions for Christ is about. We are always humbled when we visit these places because God always has a lesson for us to learn. People are in need in places like where we served in Guatemala, however, the joy they have is unmeasurable.”

Yassa said that this experience has allowed her and her fellow students to gain field experience in multiple aspects of community and global health, and she is thankful for the hands-on learning opportunities and resources Liberty provides.

“I’m really blessed that Dr. Attin and Liberty as a whole have allowed us to go and do the work that we needed to do, and hopefully we’re able to continue doing the work in the future,” she said. “I think COVID has definitely helped bring light to public health, especially the practices of prevention and spreading awareness about the value of public health, because it’s important wherever you are.”

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