Every summer since 2000, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine students travel to Honduras and provide basic health care to the citizens of one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Since 2009, members of the team have also been working in the Dominican Republic.

The VCU medical student organization HOMBRE, or Honduras Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort, not only makes a difference in the lives of the people it treats but also in the lives of the students themselves as they realize firsthand what it means to give back.

“My desire to become a physician is rooted in serving those who lack access to health care,” said medical student Philip Ernest, who traveled to Pinares, Honduras, during summer 2010. “HOMBRE seemed like the perfect opportunity to link my education with my personal desire to help those in need.”

“This gives first-year students a way to maintain that energy, enthusiasm, that sense of caring, the altruism — all those good things that most people come into medicine with,” added Steven Crossman, M.D., Pinares site leader, director of medical student education for the VCU Department of Family Medicine and 1995 graduate of the medical school.

HOMBRE offers three locations where students can travel: Los Pinares, one of the poorest areas in Honduras; an orphanage known as NPH in Rancho Santa Fe, that cares for more than 600 children; and in the Dominican Republic, Paraiso, an urban community with no clean water or sewage treatment.

Added as the program’s third location in 2009, Paraiso brings different challenges to the students while exposing them to caring for chronic diseases. Even though the area includes stable and permanent cinderblock homes, residents receive minimal access to health care despite living only 45 minutes from the public health center in Santo Domingo.

“Many residents in Paraiso report significant issues accessing care,” said Mark Ryan, M.D., Paraiso site leader, VCU Department of Family Medicine faculty member and 2000 graduate of the medical school. “Outside medical teams, like ours, play an important role in extending care and in focusing community-wide interventions, such as providing parasite medications in the community.”

Overall, HOMBRE provides the VCU students with an even greater appreciation for what they, as future doctors, offer to patients around the world.

“This is the kind of experience that reminds you why you went into medicine in the first place and it’s at the core of what should be the values of all physicians,” said medical student Jessica Landin, who served as HOMBRE student director in 2010. “Additionally, it’s an amazing environment to practice the skills we learn as first years, especially with limited resources.”

In Honduras, most citizens served by HOMBRE live on less than $2 a day without running water, bathrooms, electricity, cars or books. Many of the houses have dirt floors and thatched roofs.

Depending on the site the students visit, they may see as many as 300 people a day suffering from a wide variety of ailments, including upper respiratory infection, parasites and anemia. However, because they lack resources, many come in for basic relief.

“Many people just came in for pain relief, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but we stayed with them for a long time so they could tell us about their work and their families,” Landin said. “Often, we discovered deeper medical problems by really listening and were able to treat them for those things.”

For Ernest and Landin, the HOMBRE experience only validated their passion for serving others and using their medical knowledge to help the underserved.

“This trip helped confirm my perspectives on medicine and service,” Ernest said. “It helped me see the opportunities available to serve others using medicine and public health to truly support communities abroad.”

Landin agreed.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for everyone in the medical profession to reach outside their comfort zone,” she said, “and help people in need who don’t otherwise have access to adequate health care.”