Sunny days in Coclé

Global brigades lee blog

UIC Global Brigades group picture in Panama.


♪♫♪ I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me / And every day is like a battle but every night with us is like a dream…

At long last, 2015 is here! Finally, a year divisible by 5! Call me a nerd, but that makes it lucky to me. I rang in the New Years in my typical preferred quiet and relatively uneventful fashion — at home with my family while snacking on sweets and drinking hot tea.

We also had a family friend stay with us over winter break — Fred, the son of my parents’ old friends, who is an international student from China and is currently a freshman at the University of Georgia. It was fun to show him around Naperville/Chicago, but the best time probably came from just playing Jenga and UNO with him and my brother Bob on New Years Eve while waiting for the Times Square countdown.

Actually it was even a struggle for me to even stay awake until then! After watching the ball drop at 11 PM CST, I was already drowsy but forced myself to stay up for another hour so I could say that I saw 2015 arrive properly. What a dramatic change from not even a month ago, when I was up at all hours studying and working!

But if I’ve done nothing this winter break, I’ve at least replenished my sleep and compensated (as well as I can) for the accumulated hours of undersleep from finals week … although I can’t say that I’ve exactly fixed my circadian rhythm in any way. But this first week is a challenge, regardless of my sleep patterns, because of leaping back into my campus housing duties and classes.

This past winter break, I journeyed to Panama with UIC Global Brigades! It was quite a unique experience over the course of just one week and I’m thankful the people I met and all the new experiences. I also learned a lot about myself … admittedly in the face of many first-world problems.

But 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 still to think of all the people that benefitted from our time and work in Coclé, Panama.

Immediately after I finished my last final exam on the last Friday, I rushed home to pack for the trip. I was at the airport not 12 hours later to meet the rest of our roughly 30-person group and catch the flight to Miami and subsequently Panama. The whole trip took just about the entire day, and when we arrived to the compound we were staying at, it was already after nightfall.

The three-hour bus ride from the Panama City airport was glorious though! Panama is a beautiful country — pretty much all the beauty I imagined and even more. The city is bustling with people and cars — and a large number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, funnily enough — but as soon as we reached the outskirts we were surrounded by deep green all around us from the seemingly endless trees and mountains.


cleaning dental supplies lee blog

Cleaning dental supplies

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 just take for granted in my daily life that to suddenly go without them is eye-opening.

There were two cabins for our group, and so I lived in a cabin with 22 people, sharing just one toilet, sink, and shower. Confined with all of our various suitcases and backpacks, the space was very cramped and it felt like we were all on top of each other—literally, as there were a dozen bunk beds in the room—and for me, who considers personal space a necessity, this proved a challenge to overcome.

But it didn’t take long for all of us to become very close as a group. Working and living together so closely will do that! We bonded over our worn down, mysteriously stained mattresses and the fact that the lack of hot water was acceptable because of hot and humid the air was. And of course, we learned much 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 over a hundred patients a day to help provide medical and dental care as well as medicine. There were two doctors, one pharmacist and one dentist with our brigade, and our job was to assist them in any way we could while learning from them.

We rotated through stations in order to do so — Triage, Consultation, Dental, Pharmacy and Charla, which was the station that we taught dental hygiene and nutrition lessons to the patients. I loved Triage because we interacted closely with the patients by taking vitals like pulse, blood pressure and respiration rate, but my favorites were Dental and Consultation because of how much I learned from just spending a little time with the doctors and dentist. In Consultation, we sat in and essentially shadowed the doctor as they spoke to the patients about their health and primary concerns.

We were also lucky to have some wonderful translators with us to help throughout the entire week because I sure would not have been able to get by with the small amount of Spanish I retained from high school! I learned a lot by sitting with the two doctors, Santiago and Felippe, 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. It was also both exciting and a little terrifying to watch live extractions! I don’t consider myself squeamish when it comes to watching such things, but I do cringe a bit when I know others are in pain. But the Dental portion made a huge difference in the patients’ lives because they were able to receive expensive care completely for free.


ploughing the fields lee blog

Ploughing the fields.

The same can be said of course about the medical care they received. Although the vast majority of the patients visited us for a routine check-up or for the common cold, some of them needed serious medical care and were able to be transported to the medical center for it.

In addition, because of the fundraising we did, we were able to bring with us a lot of medication to distribute to the patients for free of cost. Knowing that us being there allowed for them to receive this healthcare was very rewarding to think about, and it made everything feel worth it.

The following two days were spent on the environmental portion of the brigade. We visited a sustainable farm in Coclé and helped a farmer with some of his work. Mr. Pasquél (and I fear I’m spelling his name wrong) was very kind and welcoming to us and took us on a tour-hike through this vast farmland, which included all kinds of crops varying from rice to corn as well as animals like fish, iguanas (which are a Panamanian delicacy!), and huge rabbits the size of dogs! We also got to try some of oranges and sugar canes from his farm as well.

We helped Mr. Pasquél 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 ploughing fields and sweating underneath the sun. But after just two days on the farm, I am happy to say that I had a taste for the experience now! As a group, we worked together to plough half a field for Mr. Pasquél, a task that he usually has to undertake by himself and takes him several days. Because we had so many hands at work, we were able to get it down in an afternoon!

I helped by digging up trenches with a shovel for the first time in my life. We also helped by filling thousands of little bags with soil for him to use for growing crops when the right time of the crop season comes. Finally, we also helped paint Mr. Pasquél’s handmade bamboo furniture that was crafted from the bamboo on his farm! It was the final coat on top of the furniture that would prevent insects from crawling in or destroying the furniture.

It seemed like there was nothing that the farm didn’t have — and it was all sustainable too, which made it all the more impressive. It was clear that Mr. Pasquél was extremely proud of his work, and for good reason. It’s incredible to me that he works by himself on everything on his farm and is so knowledgeable about all aspects of farming by just learning from experience.


painting bamboo lee blog

Painting bamboo.

On the last day, we all went to the beach for one last bonding day with each other. As I was laying in the warm sand—in the middle of December! — I realized that I had no clue when I might see my Panamanian friends again.

The translators and leaders on our brigade — Aníbal, David, Roberto, Eric, Miguel — were all so wonderful to us and made the experience all the richer. They took extra time to explain things to us and accommodate our requests, such as to go souvenir shopping or to the market every day after our work. They also arranged for us a trip to the Panama Canal on the last day because it was a perfect chance to see a landmark that was shaped by history.

During the entire trip, I was very envious of all the Spanish speakers in our group because I wish I could have communicated better with all of the natives! I wanted to properly thank them for all they did to host us and teach us about Panama and its culture.

Going to Panama was by far the highlight of my winter break … and probably my fall semester as well. 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 this frigid cold of Chicago winter, I can warm my heart just by just thinking about the grassy green of Panama and the wonderful people that I met there.

Baby we’re the new romantics / The best people in life are free ♪♫♪

(New Romantics – Taylor Swift


Sarah Lee (F)


Sarah Lee is a junior studying neuroscience and Russian in the GPPA Medicine program at UIC. She’s still trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do, but some of  life goals include running a marathon, exploring Eastern Europe and becoming fluent in Russian. In her free time, she loves running, playing piano and guitar, and reading. A Naperville native, Sarah is a peer mentor in the Courtyard residence hall.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email