Interdisciplinary Course Exposes Students to Health Care in Nicaragua

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

by Katie Smith ’15

Once final exams conclude in the spring, most University students head for the beach, their parents’ homes or the couch for relaxation. Yet, 10 Saint Joseph’s University students forwent the relaxation to study public health issues for over two weeks in Nicaragua.

Just Health Care in Developing Nations, a cross-listed course in theology and interdisciplinary health services (HIS), exposed students to the realities of Nicaragua’s health care system and the ethical issues that arise when working within it. The summer course – team-taught by Peter A. Clark, S.J. ’75, professor of theology and IHS and director of the Institute for Catholic Bioethics, and Jean Smolen, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and environmental science – covered morality, Catholic Social Teaching, public health perspectives, infectious disease and water sanitation.

“We decided to teach the course in-country this year to give students an immediate point of reference for the issues they were studying,” says Smolen. “Being able to witness the living and working conditions of Nicaraguans enabled students to understand the environmental factors, such as air and water pollution, that contribute to health problems.”

“The class structure was unique,” says Nick Radigan ’16, of Canton, Mass. “In the morning, we discussed ethical concepts like the responsibility to help others, as well as structural reasons for water contamination. Then, we visited community members to support and deepen our class work.”

The course examined one topic in particular: the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) among Central American sugarcane workers. A study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reported that over 20,000 people from Central America are estimated to have died from CKD in the past two decades. Most cases were concentrated among sugarcane workers along the Pacific coast.

A Boston University study found a clear connection between the sudden surge in CKD patients and their occupational hazards, particularly excessive heat and dehydration. 

The class learned about the effects of CKD and the problems it causes for the health care system when they spoke with local health professionals and clinic workers. In Managua, Nicaragua, the class met workers from the Nicaraguan Association of People Affected by Chronic Renal Failure (ANAIRC), who represent the families of sugar cane workers suffering from CKD.

“In order to understand the pervasive tragedy of CKD,” says Fr. Clark, “our students needed to hear about it firsthand and to see the cane fields, one of the advantages of studying in-country. Choosing to immerse themselves in this reality and try to understand the realities of public health in developing nations, this group embodies the Jesuit commitment to social justice.”

Fr. Clark will continue to research CKD with Radigan, a biology major, through the Summer Scholars program this year. His project, “The Cause and Spread of Chronic Kidney Disease Nontraditional Causes (CKDnT) in Nicaraguan Sugar Cane Workers” integrates his own academic study into the summer coursework.

“Reading about CKD only teaches you so much,” says Radigan. “It was seeing the cane fields and meeting those who work there that made this project real. I now have faces to go along with my research.” 

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