Medical student helps indigenous Mayan population in Guatemala

Brianna Williamson, a Boonshoft School of Medicine student, took a year off from medical school to immerse herself in rural Guatemala and care for patients.

Passionate about international development and improving the health of people in poor nations, Brianna Williamson, a third-year medical student at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, took a year off from medical school to immerse herself in rural Guatemala and care for patients.

She partnered with Habitat for Humanity and Organization for the Development of Indigenous Maya (ODIM), a local nongovernmental organization. She worked in two Mayan villages, helping a local physician with prenatal visits. Under the physician’s supervision, she saw patients and assisted with prenatal care, including nutritional care.

“In Guatemala, maternal undernutrition contributes to approximately 800,000 neonatal deaths each year,” she said. “Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of child malnutrition in the world.”

She learned about ODIM’s development of a program designed to address child malnutrition in indigenous villages. The program focuses on culturally and linguistically appropriate prenatal and postpartum medical care, maternal and child health nutrition education, fortified food supplementation and social support for mothers.

Williamson also worked on an adolescent sex education program in the two villages, providing training for local teachers. She wrote a culturally considerate curriculum in Spanish.

“In Guatemala, it is somewhat taboo to talk about sex,” she said. “Sexual education is not readily available to adolescents in these communities.”

The experience in Guatemala confirmed her passion for international development and health systems for the poor.

“There needs to be a more equitable distribution of health care, even for the poorest of the poor,” said Williamson, who is from Cincinnati.

Williamson’s interest in international development started when she was a high school student at Ursuline Academy, a college-preparatory Catholic high school for young women in Cincinnati. After high school, Williamson attended Brown University, where she played Division I volleyball. Despite the demands of being on the volleyball team, Williamson earned a bachelor’s degree in development studies and spent time abroad. She spent two summers working with child soldiers in Uganda. During her first trip, she worked with physicians who helped former child soldiers through sport therapy.

“The doctors who helped these child soldiers in Uganda had a toolbox of skills that made a palpable difference,” said Williamson, who spent her second summer in Uganda conducting research on the reintroduction of child soldiers into society through the lens of sport.

Brianna Williamson, first row, third from the left, is pictured with members of the staff of the Organization for the Development of Indigenous Maya, a local, nongovernmental organization. (Photo by Anna C. Watts)

During her junior year, she studied abroad for a semester in Guatemala. She took classes and worked with an organization that used soccer to encourage kids to stay off the streets. After college, she spent a year working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in North Camden, New Jersey. She helped Hispanic immigrants in a medical clinic. The majority of the patients spoke only Spanish. That experience solidified her decision to attend medical school.

Impressed with the Boonshoft School of Medicine’s International Education Program, she applied to medical school and was accepted.

During medical school, she spent the summer between her first and second years in Guatemala. But she wasn’t able to see any ripple effects of her work. So, she decided to take a year off from medical school to spend more time there.

“By staying eight months, I hoped to contribute in ways that would create a lasting impact,” Williamson said.

Before she went to Guatemala for eight months, Williamson met several times with her mentor, Kate Conway, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine and director of medical education in the Department of Family Medicine at the Boonshoft School of Medicine. While she was in Guatemala, Williamson used FaceTime to meet once a month with Conway. They discussed Williamson’s research on malnutrition and spent time reflecting on the patient care Williamson was involved in and the touching and impactful situations she encountered.

“Brianna is a global health star. She brings energy, joy and skill to the patients she serves. She knows how to enter an organization and find out what they need from her,” Conway said. “She arrives with an open mind and open heart. I was struck by her natural, humanistic approach to medicine and her ability to be such an advocate for patients in Guatemala.”

Williamson will present her research in October at the 2017 American Academy of Family Physicians Family Medicine Global Health Workshop in Houston.

Wright State became an independent institution in 1967 and spent the next 50 years growing into an innovative leader in global health and family medicine. In 2017, it celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent public university, culminating with a special Homecoming celebration Sept. 29 through Oct. 1.

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