Helping others on a trip with the UIC Global Brigades

Sarah Lee - Global Brigades

Sarah Lee cleans dental equipment during her trip to Panama with UIC Global Brigades. Lee helped provide medical and dental care to more than 300 patients at a makeshift clinic. “The dental portion made a huge difference in the patients’ lives because they were able to receive expensive care for free.”


Over winter break, I journeyed to Panama with UIC Global Brigades for a week. Now that I’m back in Chicago in my Courtyard room, I can’t help but wish to be back there, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by some of the most good-humored and smartest people I know.

It brings me such joy to think of all the people that benefitted from our work in Coclé, Panama.

Panama is a beautiful country. The city is bustling with people and cars — and a large number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants — but as soon as we reached the outskirts, we were surrounded by endless trees and mountains.

Our compound was surrounded by green and it felt a little like camping in a forest. This is where I have to admit my confrontations with first-world problems — there are so many things I take for granted in my daily life that to suddenly go without them was eye-opening.

Volunteers painting bamboo

Painting furniture crafted from bamboo on the farm.

I lived in a cabin with 22 people, sharing one toilet, sink and shower. With all of our suitcases and backpacks, it felt like we were on top of each other. It didn’t take long for all of us to become very close. We bonded over our worn-down mattresses and the fact that the cold water was acceptable because of how hot and humid the air was. We learned a lot about each other’s goals and pursuits in life by working alongside each other in the clinics and fields.

The purpose of the trip was twofold: medical and environmental. For the first three days, we worked at a makeshift clinic in an elementary school and saw more than 100 patients a day, providing medical and dental care.

Our brigade included two doctors, a pharmacist and a dentist, and our job was to assist them and learn from them. We rotated through stations. I loved triage because we interacted closely with the patients by taking vitals, but my favorite stations were dental and consultation because of how much I learned from spending time with the doctors and dentist.

I learned a lot by sitting with the two doctors because they were so wonderful about telling us extra information or drawing the human body to show exactly what was going on. In dental, we helped by cleaning the tools and giving fluoride to the patients.

The dental portion made a huge difference in the patients’ lives because they were able to receive expensive care for free.

Volunteers plowing a field

The group worked together to plow half a field, which usually takes several days for an individual farmer.

Because of the fundraising we did, we were able to bring with us a lot of medication to distribute to the patients for free. Knowing that being there allowed them to receive this care made everything feel worth it.

For the environmental portion, we visited a sustainable farm in Coclé and helped a farmer with some of his work. The farmland had crops varying from rice to corn, as well as animals like fish, iguanas (a Panamanian delicacy) and huge rabbits the size of dogs.

We helped by doing something I had never really been exposed to — manual labor. As privileged and spoiled as it may sound, the bulk of my working life has been spent in classrooms, laboratories and offices. I’ve never worked manual labor like plowing fields and sweating underneath the sun.

As a group, we worked together to plow half a field, a task that usually takes several days. Because we had so many hands at work, we were able to get it done in an afternoon. I helped by digging trenches with a shovel for the first time in my life. We also filled thousands of bags with soil for growing crops and helped paint furniture crafted from the bamboo on the farm.

On the last day, we went to the beach for one last bonding day.

Going to Panama was by far the highlight of my winter break. I hope that I might be able to return some day soon and see all the places and people again.

Until then though, whenever I am walking to class through the frigid Chicago winter, I can warm my heart by thinking about the grassy green of Panama and the wonderful people I met there.

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