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Volunteer medical missions connect WVU with rural Honduras

Volunteer medical missions connect WVU with rural Honduras

Dr. Emily Barnes (center) and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) student (left) meet with a patient in Honduras. 

From a young age, Emily Barnes has had a strong sense of purpose and adventure. Now she is able to combine her passions as a faculty member in the West Virginia University School of Nursing.

“As a teenager, I knew I wanted to have a career in healthcare,” Barnes, associate dean for faculty practice and clinical professor in the Adult Health Department, recalls. “As I learned more about my career options, I was drawn to the holistic perspective of the nursing model of care.

“My mom always said I had wanderlust. I was fortunate to have opportunities to travel early in my life and always hoped I would be able to contribute to the greater good by volunteering my professional skills to people around the world in need of healthcare.”

Dr. Emily Barnes serves as the associate dean for faculty practice and a clinical professor in the Adult Health Department at the WVU School of Nursing.  

In 2015, during a search for opportunities to participate in international healthcare missions, Barnes discovered Carolina Honduras Health Foundation (CHHF), and she has been working with the organization ever since.

The nonprofit organization helps fill the healthcare gap and ensure continuity of care in Honduras by providing healthcare for patients, assisting with community development initiatives and educational programming and supplying nutritious food and vitamins.

“On that first trip with CHHF, I was one of three primary care providers on the team,” Barnes said. “I was also able to have one of my graduate students join me on the team. I was impressed by CHHF, the community participation, the level of care services provided, and I saw the opportunity to include students in a valuable learning experience.”

The following year, she began serving as a team leader and was able to provide more experiences for students. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the organization to pause in-person mission trips but gave Barnes the opportunity to take on a new role working with patients as a telehealth provider.

Hands-on care in remote villages

Carolina Honduras Health Foundation’s in-country medical mission teams provide medical, dental, ophthalmic and pharmaceutical care in the region designated as Department of Colón.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities to travel to Honduras for volunteer work have been limited, but the trips are becoming prominent once again, allowing Barnes to lead a group of WVU students and faculty members to the area in March.

The interprofessional group hails from all across the globe, offering medical, dental, ophthalmic and pharmaceutical care. 

The interprofessional group of 12 individuals included Caroline Menighan, a student in the Master of Science in Nursing program, Susan McKenrick, clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and Marina Galvez-Peralta and Jon Wietholter, faculty members in the School of Pharmacy. Other members of a typical mission team could include physicians, dentists, optometrists, laboratory technicians, medical interpreters and non-medical volunteers to assist in clinic areas.

Throughout their week-long mission, the team hosted five clinics in four remote villages and were able to provide care for nearly 800 patients. They also provided 900 lbs. of rice and 900 lbs. of beans to patients that would enable them to feed their family for about two weeks and help with ongoing stunting and malnutrition that are common in the area.

While the numbers are impressive, Barnes shares the personal stories that make more of an impact.

“The human story includes a 29-year-old that was quickly headed to blindness due to increased eye pressure, but the eye team was able to get the pressure down and stabilized and make a referral which will delay or prevent blindness for that young woman.

“It’s the patients who were able to have teeth removed so that infection didn’t spread throughout their body. It’s the kids with ear infections and pneumonia that were treated with antibiotics. And we got something out of it too—we spent a week in a beautiful country with beautiful people.”

An MSN student (right) assesses a patient during an examination. 

Continued care through remote connections

While in-person mission teams provide care across the country throughout most of the year, telemedicine services are offered between trips and when teams are unable to travel, such as during the rainy season, times of political unrest and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barnes serves as a telemedicine provider for the organization during these times in which there is often an even greater need for care. Utilizing TytoCare Bluetooth technology, she is able to perform thorough exams to treat patients located in Honduras while she remains in Morgantown.

One of her recent virtual visits was featured in the organization’s Heartbeats From Honduras monthly newsletter.

Earlier this year, Barnes cared for a mother and her baby who visited the telemedicine clinic. The infant was ill and had stopped nursing due to congestion which caused wheezing and difficulty breathing. After an assessment, Barnes recommended treatment and an in-person follow up appointment with the incoming mission team.

In three days’ time, the team was pleased to report that the baby girl’s health had significantly improved and she was all smiles and giggles during her checkup.

“If telehealth wasn't offered, her treatment would have been delayed which could have resulted in negative outcomes,” Barnes said. “The feeling I had when they told me the baby was doing much better reminded me of why I wanted to become a nurse practitioner.”

Service to self through service to others

Although Honduras and West Virginia are thousands of miles apart, the two areas have similar challenges – lack of infrastructure, limited access to healthcare and lack of financial resources to obtain necessary treatment. But Barnes notes that both populations benefit from the value of family and its role as an important support system.

The strong connections, beliefs, attitudes and ideals that accompany those values are part of what makes service to others meaningful for Barnes.

“I believe humans have an ethical responsibility to care for each other,” she said. “Providers and students are in a unique position to use their professional training to connect with other humans by meeting healthcare needs.”

While volunteering can be a way to redistribute resources to those who need them, Barnes says individuals should consider many factors when selecting an opportunity.

“I do think it is very important to consider the implications of any volunteer activity and ensure it is not completely self-serving. I am cognizant to seek international volunteer opportunities that have community participation so as to avoid a negative impact on the community being served.”

In addition to benefitting patients and communities, Barnes’ work with Carolina Honduras Health Foundation has provided her with new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

“I am aware that often volunteers may receive more than they actually provide. I find that when I volunteer, I also benefit from a renewed sense of purpose, camaraderie, increased gratitude and appreciation for the non-material things in life.”

An MSN student (right) assesses a young patient. 



CONTACT: Wendy Holdren
Director of Communications and Marketing
WVU School of Nursing