When Students Become Teachers

When Students Become Teachers

By Benjamin Gleisser

Creighton medical students participate in collaborative outreach with Omaha’s
Maya community

Alfredo (not his real name) is a typical teenage boy. As he sits quietly in the back of the meeting room, elbows on his knees, looking at the floor, the Maya teen gives off the aloof vibe of someone who would rather be anywhere else this evening.

Yet for some reason, he has come to this discussion on the benefits of exercise and nutrition, an event sponsored by the Maya Community Health Collaborative (MCHC), and led by students from the Creighton University School of Medicine in collaboration with Maya community partners.

The Maya, an indigenous people from Guatemala, Belize, southern parts of Mexico and the western portions of El Salvador and Honduras, began migrating to the U.S. in the 1980s to escape political upheaval and persecution in their countries. Attracted by affordable living costs and job opportunities, the Maya began settling in Omaha in the mid-1990s.

Pixan Ixim, a Maya community group that promotes culture and education, estimates that about 1,500 Maya live in Omaha. Unfortunately, like many uprooted communities that have been transplanted to a new country, they are facing the challenges of learning to cope with a different way of life. And many of these challenges revolve around maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Attendance is robust at these bi-weekly mentoring and health education talks. As this evening’s lecture turns into a community forum, many in the audience begin sharing stories of their homeland, and then ask poignant, probing questions of the Creighton medical students.

By the end of the night, Alfredo is sitting upright and listening intently to the speakers. Perhaps Alfredo is imagining a time in the future when he might be a med student, working for the betterment of his people.

Matt Kiblinger, a third-year medical student, is one of the founding members of the MCHC and one of the first co-presidents. Before entering medical school, he spent several months in Guatemala, living near the home region of many Omaha Maya emigres. His desire to help communities that are medically underserved led him to volunteer with the MCHC.

“In medical school, it’s easy to get lost in your own world,” Kiblinger says. “Working with (MCHC) is a way to reach out to people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.”

And as to working with youngsters like Alfredo, “It’s really great to see high school students who, at first, keep to themselves and act like it’s not cool to interact with grown-ups, then begin feeling comfortable and getting involved in discussions,” he adds. “They share stories and sometimes, we even get together and play soccer with them.”

Kiblinger and 23 other medical students work with the MCHC, a program collaboratively developed with Maya community leaders Luis Marcos and Lucia Francisco and Creighton School of Medicine Professor John Stone, Ph.D., M.D., a faculty member in Creighton’s Center for Health Policy and Ethics, and co-founder and co-executive director of Creighton’s Center for Promoting Health and Health Equality.

But the MCHC dispenses more than just health advice, Kiblinger says: “We help older kids with things like resume building, and talk with some of the younger ones about problems that second-generation immigrants face in school, like bullying and whatever they feel is important to talk about.”

Filling a Need

In 2007, Stone and his wife, Janet, began teaching English as a Second Language to members of the Maya community because, “We were interested in helping a community with a disadvantage,” Stone says.

After Marcos met Stone and discovered he was not only a doctor, but served in Creighton’s Center for Health Policy and Ethics, Marcos suggested that the two collaborate on setting up a program in the Maya community that would raise awareness of health needs.

“The Maya is one of the first native first nations in the Western Hemisphere,” says Marcos, who adds that the culture can be traced back at least 10,000 years to areas in Central America. Marcos says that among the Maya population that has settled in the United States, “we are seeing a rise in diabetes. We’re also seeing more problems with cholesterol, and alcoholism seems to be high in the community. The (MCHC) is important because it will establish a comprehensive medical plan for us that will work with our spirituality. We carry with us the resolve to be a self-determination people.”

One difficulty facing the Maya is the language barrier. “Because we have a similar complexion to Hispanics, many people assume we speak Spanish,” Marcos says. In fact, there are more than 23 Maya languages spoken in Guatemala alone, and Spanish is a second language for many Maya people.

“A Maya woman went into a clinic to get treatment for a lung problem and the doctor misdiagnosed her for tuberculosis,” Marcos says, “because she didn’t understand his questions.” Marcos hopes the MCHC will be able to train Maya as interpreters that will accompany patients to doctors’ offices.

In 2013, Stone and Marcos, in collaboration with Creighton’s Center for Promoting Health and Health Equality, developed an introductory training program for Maya community members to become community health workers. Spanish-speaking medical students were invited and volunteered to assist in the training. The students and community members agreed to collaborate in developing health education programs for the Maya community. Early efforts involved mentoring Maya youngsters and giving presentations on health topics for the community. Nine students volunteered. Today, 24 students are involved in the group.

And in addition to holding the informative health-discussion nights, members of the MCHC have prepared to assist in a Maya community health assessment study to determine which health issues most concern the Maya. Research is currently underway on the three-phase study.

The Two-Way Street

Marcos said the MCHC is a win-win proposition because everyone benefits from the program.

“It’s a two-way street,” he says. “Our spirituality encourages us to get to know and respect other cultures, and meeting Creighton students gives us a way to interact with another culture. It also helps medical students in their education process, because they’re learning to understand what it’s like to work in a multicultural environment.”

Second-year medical student Aaron Fried volunteers with the MCHC because he was a Hispanic studies minor and, as undergraduate, spent a summer in Guatemala before beginning medical school. Today, he is co-president of the group.

“My trip to Guatemala was a very powerful experience,” he says. “It was eye-opening to see the roots of some prominent attitudes the community has toward health care. For example, we found that many people in the Maya communities avoid health care services unless there is a specific need. A specific need was most often trauma, physical injury or severe pain. This contrasts with here in the U.S., where we encourage health care services on a regular, preventive basis.”

Reflecting on his work with the MCHC, Fried says, “Creighton students value giving service to others, and what I get most out of my work is developing friendships with people and creating an environment that inspires trust.”

Michelle Marieni, a third-year medical student who is a founding member and one of the first co-presidents for the MCHC, says it’s exciting to help empower the Maya people to advocate for themselves. “I hope to incorporate advocacy, education and community health into my career as a physician,” she says.