J-Term Course in the Caribbean Combines Health Care and Cultural Education

January 15, 2009 — As the week progressed, a tropical storm bloomed into a category 3 hurricane heading for the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. A group of University of Virginia students had to decide to leave or stay, locate shelters and disaster preparedness supplies and take care of mass casualties.

Fortunately, the hurricane was fictitious and the emergency activities a simulation.

In the U.Va. January Term course, "Disaster Preparedness in the West Indies," Dr. Marcus Martin, professor and associate vice president for diversity and equity, led 23 students through the fundamentals of emergency care and disaster preparedness using the actual infrastructures in this small, developing country. The course, offered for the first time, also included a service project at a local hospital; meetings with officials, including the Ministry of Health's Chief Medical Officer and the dean of the International University of Nursing; and several cultural tours and activities.

The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis celebrates Carnival for a week after Christmas. Arriving Jan. 2, the students watched the last day of festivities. Thousands of people in costume, including "Moko-Jumbies," or stilt walkers, rode floats, shared food, played music and danced in the streets.

Martin, the former chairman of the U.Va. Health System's emergency medicine department, said the course was "an opportunity to further diversify the U.Va. undergraduate curriculum in cultural content and expand health care course options.

"The hotel where we stayed was an actual designated hurricane shelter," he said.

The course covered planning, prevention, response and recovery related to many types of hazards besides hurricanes, from epidemics to volcanoes. Students learned basic life support procedures, some elements of advanced cardiac and trauma life support, and personal safety and disaster preparedness tips.

"The J-Term in St. Kitts was an amazing experience," said fourth-year nursing student Natalie Ellman. "Gaining insight into Kittitian culture from the first day created a basis of understanding as we explored the health care system and resources utilized by St. Kitts in the event of a disaster."

Temi Awosogba, a graduate student in the Medical School's public health program, said she "learned the ways in which the people of St. Kitts and Nevis strive to maintain healthy lives despite the resource-poor nature of their country. The people of St. Kitts and Nevis and the U.S. can accrue many benefits from melding our nation's highly specialized medical technologies with their emphasis on primary care and prevention."

The trip was an important first step toward future academic collaboration with Caribbean countries.

"We now plan to initiate talks to develop curricula in other disciplines, possibly nursing, economics, history and architecture," said William Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity.

— By Anne Bromley