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By Merrian J. Brooks, DO, MS

I am writing this from my new desk as the lead pediatrician and research director for the Botswana UPENN Partnership. Botswana, a country the size of the US state of Texas with a population of a little more than 2 million people is one of my global health homes. The other is Jamaica.

10 years ago I graduated from medical school and I have been reflecting on my journey in medicine. Unlike some, I didn’t always want to be a physician. I admired scientists like Mae Jamison and Marie Curie, women who changed the world with their scientific contributions.  Then, as an undergraduate student, I discovered my passion for medicine during a study abroad semester in Ghana. I was a volunteer at the University of Ghana, Legon hospital. As an undergraduate student I didn’t have any technical skills so I just got to know the hospital system and helped out where I can. I helped check people in (which was very humbling!), helped clean rooms, helped gather and organize supplies, even changing some bed pans! After doing this for a several months I spent the last few weeks shadowing one of the only specialists in the hospital at the time (2004), a pediatrician. That’s when I decided I was going to be a physician. The world needed physicians and I could also change the world   maybe not as a Nobel laureate or trailblazing astronaut, but in a smaller way, as a compassionate, committed, and quality physician for the global underserved.

So, I went to medical school at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. There I worked with a trailblazer in global public health, Dr. Mario Grijalva PhD. She is a research scientist from Ecuador who has transformed the landscape of interventions for Chagas’ Disease in his home country. I travelled to Ecuador a few times with the Tropical Disease Institute that he and other scientists at Ohio University started. I learned a lot in preparation and when in Ecuador from Dr. Grijalva and is amazing team. What has stayed with me since then, though, and what I apply today in. my work in Botswana is that partnerships are vital, instead of seeing our colleagues in the countries we work in as conduits we partner with them. We help them with the resources we have, we lean on them as leaders, we collaborate as equals. Dr. Grijalva supports the education of countless Ecuadorian students at all levels and has brought his team to the US to further their education. As a team of US and Ecuadorian professionals this group has been able to do amazing work in many areas of public health in Ecuador.

As a pediatric resident I learned about how important global health concepts can be even in certain communities in the United States. I chose a residency that was in Camden New Jersey at a hospital system that serves as a safety net for a community with high rates of poverty, insurance that limits access to pediatric subspecialists, and social scenarios like high levels of community violence or food deserts that can make it hard for children to live full healthy lives. It was during my residency that I discovered the Issa Trust Foundations rotation program. What I loved about the program was that it was being well supported by the foundation. Many pediatricians came before me and many came after me and it felt like we were providing a service that really filled a need. Instead of being a once off visit all together we were ‘the pediatrician’ in these underserved parts of Northern Jamaica. I worked with Issa Trust Foundation several more times after that providing support when in the US and going on a few of the trips to do community screening and referrals. I still remember a song a few of the young men sang for us when we were preparing for a community pop-up clinic in St. Ann’s Bay. It was called Paper Cut, and it was about how their lost love had left the sting of a ‘paper cut’ on their hearts. I loved my time there. I felt like we were making a real difference. Connecting to services for the young man with cerebral palsy, providing treatments for infections and rashes, connecting people with chronic diseases like epilepsy with specialist, and also just being an listening ear providing support and reassurance to weary parents. I remember one mother that I saw a few times in Port Maria was so happy about getting her sons asthma under control that she brought me a bag of ‘ripe banana’ as thanks. Other families would bring me flowers, homemade jewelry, and homemade cards. I know that I was a part of a larger system that does a real service for kids on Jamaica, but I also know that taking care of those patients almost always made my heart sing. On one of those trips to Jamaica I remember sitting in the lobby of Couples Towers Isle and having my first of many deep conversations with Diane Pollard. What I remember most from that conversation is that she clearly worked hard to do the best she can so serve from a place of love. She and her small but mighty team worked tirelessly to continue to elevate the foundation so that it provided needed services, supplies, and expertise to fill the needs and requests of the expert pediatricians serving children every day in Jamaica. Of all that I learned between Camden and Jamaica in serving the underserved, I will always center my work, like Diane does, in love.

After completing training in pediatrics and then adolescent medicine I decided to pursue my calling in global health full time via a David N. Pincus Foundation Global Health Fellow with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. At that time four year ago I was able to be fully immersed in the health system in Botswana and really focus on how I can contribute, collaborate, and learn from and with my colleagues in Botswana. While here I have helped to enhance an adolescent health clinic, work with the ministry of health and wellness on guidelines, set up a research project that increases access to mental health services for adolescents and young adults and teach students of all levels about pediatrics and mostly about adolescent health. Most adolescents live in lower income resource limited settings, so I feel a particular affinity to teaching and building systems that work in all kinds of settings for adolescents. It can be difficult but building something that has a chance to serve youth for years to come, is so meaningful.

Now 10 years since graduating from medical school and A LOT of growth and development later I’ve accepted a position to be the Lead Pediatrician and Research Director of the Botswana UPENN partnership. Me and my husband and daughter will be based in Botswana for the next several years. Botswana is not just a good place for me to grow but it’s a place where I can authentically contribute and collaborate. My dear friend here in Botswana told me a few days ago, “Botswana had been good to you. You came here single as a fellow no kids and now! You must continue to be grateful for the blessings”. There are so many blessings. There are the blessings of amazing local mentors, colleagues and friends from Botswana. There are the blessings of a beautiful family that is with me and the privilege of having the most wonderful family and friends mentors and colleagues in the US (and Europe and Asia) who put in the work with us to stay connected. Even as I deal with grief and waves of disappointment because of covid I still can’t help but think wow, what a beautiful life I am privileged to live.
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Win A 5 Night Getaway at a Couples Resort of your choice! Enter by JULY 31st! Please join us in supporting the Issa Trust Foundation’s ONE LOVE SUMMER campaign, now through July 31st. Live drawing will be held on Saturday, August 14th. Your donations will go towards school supplies, critical medical equipment and supplies. We hope you will join us in showing and sharing your love for Jamaica! FOR EVERY US $50.00 DONATION, YOU WILL BE ENTERED TO WIN A GETAWAY FOR TWO AT A COUPLES RESORT OF YOUR CHOICE. Enter to win: Go to https://bit.ly/2EVNmgA to donate US $50.00 Learn more about Couples Resorts: https://couples.com/
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Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore shares a message and an appeal to corporations and organizations to give what support you can to the Issa Trust Foundation:

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2013 was the first year our Lions of Michigan Vision Mission Team partnered with the Issa Trust Foundation to bring much needed vision care to the school children of Jamaica. Lions Clubs International is the largest service organization in the world with 1.4 million members in 209 countries, with a worldwide mission of “We Serve”.

Our Lions Vision Mission team was started in 1992 by Dr. Dennis Cobler, initially making a yearly mission to Central America. Eyeglasses are collected by Lion’s members throughout the State of Michigan and brought to our recycling center. Here, every pair of glasses is inspected for damage or scratches and the “keepers” are washed, dried and then measured for their prescription. The unusable glasses are sent to a recycling center where the plastic and metal are completely recycled. Nothing is wasted. The clean/measured glasses are placed in a plastic bag with the prescription inscribed on a label. These prescriptions are then entered in our computer database and then each bag is given a number before it is packed in a box in numerical order. These glasses are then shipped to the mission site.

On the mission site, the patients have their eyes screened by an auto-refractor that measures their prescription and eye alignment objectively. The patient then sees the eye doctor, using this electronic screening as a starting point and then further examining the patient’s eyes for more precise prescription needs and complete eye health.

If glasses are needed, the prescription is entered into the computer program and the closest used glasses we have to that prescription are given to the patient. The glasses are adjusted on each patient’s head along with education on when to wear them and how to care for the glasses. If we do not have glasses close to the proper prescription, we have the patient select a new frame and we have the glasses made in the US. The finished, brand new glasses are then sent back to the patient through the Issa Trust Foundation.

During non-COVID times, we collect 500,000 of used glasses a year. Lions’ volunteers collect the glasses and perform all the recycling duties in a weekly session at the recycling center.

Our mission team to Jamaica usually consist of 4-6 Lions Optometrists and up to 10 more Lions volunteers that do the preliminary testing, computer operations and dispensing the glasses to the patients.

In Jamaica, we examine school age children from 1st grade through high school. We try to examine 200-300 students a day for 4 days. In the 9 missions we have made with the Issa Trust foundation, we have examined almost 7,200 patients and provided 1,750 pairs of glasses.

Issa Trust Foundation, headed by Diane Pollard, is the invaluable teammate that makes this all possible. Diane coordinates all the mission sites where we work, whether it is right in the school or at a local church. Diane obtains permission from all the student’s parents for us to examine them and coordinates with the teachers and administrators to schedule the students into our makeshift clinic. Diane also facilitates all the paperwork required by the Jamaican government for us to operate with our professional licenses in the country and the volunteer permits required. The Issa Trust Foundation transports our used glasses into Jamaica and secures them and our equipment before our arrival. Finally, our safe travel to and from the airport, the mission sites and our accommodations in country all are provided by the Issa Trust Foundation.
From the very nearsighted student that could only see three inches from his face clearly, to the very farsighted student that could not count their fingers in front of their face, we provide much needed eyecare for the students of Jamaica. We use vision for 80% of what we learn. The future is positively different for Jamaican students because of the partnership between the Issa Trust Foundation and the Lions of Michigan Vision Mission Team.

If you would like to help the vision mission initiative, used eyeglasses can be sent in boxes of any size to:

Lions of Michigan Eyeglass Recycling
4060 29th Str. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512

In Service and Friendship,
Lion Dr. Gary Anderson
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The National Health Fund (NHF) has received pharmaceutical drugs valued at US$900,000 geared towards boosting inpatient and outpatient care across Jamaica. This contribution to the country’s health system was made possible by Direct Relief in partnership with the Issa Trust Foundation.
Read Full Article Here
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