I met so many different people in Guyana from children to elderly to travelers like me. Each person left a memory with me, allowing me to value my time in Guyana even more.
While abroad, we met people from the Ministry of Health who watched over us and helped us get places. They took us to hospitals, schools, and orphanage and a senior citizens home.
I’ll never forget my visit to McKenzie High School. We took a day off of working in the Linden hospital to visit the school and conduct asthma screening.
While we were there, I met students with big dreams of playing in the World Cup, visiting Canada and even a student who will be moving to Texas after she graduates. These students and their goals helped me realize, amid all the excitement, that I was living out one of my high school goals to leave the United States for travel.
While I was watching these kids play soccer in the courtyard, I realized I achieved my goal a few years later that 16 year-old had planned, but I think my trip to Guyana was right on time anyways. These kids inspired me to keep my goals high too, as I’m confident they will surely reach their’s too.
On our last day, one of my favorite memories was making 100 peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches to take to Sofia, a care center for children under 18 who may not have families. Our group hurried to make all of these sandwiches, load donations into two vans and hurry over to the senior home before meeting at Sofia to decorate and meet the kids.
While at the senior home I met with five people who had lived in Guyana all of their lives. There they met their spouse, raised their kids and worked their whole lives. They went to church, read books and told each other stories. Here I made memories listening to others share theirs and it assured me. The seniors talked to me about their travels, their great loves and even the little things they have done daily all their lives to enjoy happiness.
Much further in their lives than the students at the high school, I will remember the zest for life and living out their dreams these people had. One senior told me about her dream to have children and how she had two happy, healthy children who visit her every week. She told me about the joy of ready to grandchildren and sharing a meal with them each week.
The people of Guyana reminded me of the joy that comes from achieving goals and enjoying life as it comes.
When we went to the children’s home we witnessed pure happiness. I watched children run their fingers through their new books, run around with beach balls and stuff yummy peanut butter in their mouths.
In each of the places we went we saw happiness and laughter. We heard stories of dreams and goals being achieved. We exchanged stories of our cultures and of our families back home. I’m grateful to the people I met for being fun and entertaining but for reminding me, during a long journey away from home, why I was there.
SAN MARCOS, TX – Texas State University clinical associate professor Sharon Armstead took respiratory therapy students, knowledge and donations to Guyana in January 2018 on a study abroad program.
Armstead, the director of clinical education in the respiratory department at Texas State, was born in Guyana. She lived there off and on until she was about 15 years old when her family moved to Canada permanently. She did not return to Guyana until September 2015 on a medical mission trip with Bridges Global Medical Missions.
It was on her second mission trip there, in May 2016, that she decided to create the study abroad program; it was the respiratory department’s first independent study abroad program. She said she saw an issue with respiratory care in Guyana and knew she needed to bring students because one respiratory therapist, herself, wasn’t going to be enough.
“I’ve gone to Guyana. They don’t have [respiratory therapists],” said Armstead. “I saw the need for respiratory care, especially in Guyana, because when I worked in the [emergency room] I’d see many patients come in and they’d say they have wheezing, but they would never call it asthma.”
The reason, Armstead said, is because the country doesn’t have the tools necessary to diagnose it on a large scale. She said that Georgetown Public Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana, has an asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease clinic, but that it only has two spirometers. Spirometers are an instrument used to measure the capacity of the lungs.
When she received a $11,530 grant from the CHEST Foundation, Armstead knew she wanted to use it to help provide the country with the tools to test for asthma and COPD nationwide.
“For them to go out in the field…and try and do diagnoses, they would have to take their equipment out of the hospital,” said Armstead. “We were able to purchase two [mobile] spirometry units, so that now let’s say they want to go out into the interior of Guyana, they could take one of those mobile units with them and do spirometry testing.”
Her team of five respiratory therapy students from Texas State University left Jan. 2, 2018 for Guyana. Also on the team was a former student, who is now a registered respiratory therapist, to act as her assistant.
The students worked in two hospitals while in Guyana: Georgetown Public Hospital and Linden Hospital Complex. They worked in the intensive care unit checking ventilators, doing assessments and giving respiratory therapy education to nurses. They also worked in the emergency room.
“They participated in multidisciplinary rounds. They did oral care. They kind of did some graphic analysis on the ventilators,” said Armstead. “We basically did what we would do here (in the United States.)”
Claudette Heyliger-Thomas, the medical director for Bridges Global Medical Missions and a pediatrician in Atlanta, said she knows how important respiratory therapy is in a hospital and agrees with Armstead’s mission to bring it to Guyana.
“When I have to go for a regular delivery, I am always concerned that something unusual is going to happen. When I see a respiratory therapist present, boy my blood pressure goes down and my heart rate goes down,” said Heyliger-Thomas. “If that baby decides to turn colors, I know there’s somebody there that’s going to intubate. If the mother needs care, the respiratory therapist is there.”
Heyliger-Thomas said she’s known Armstead for about 40 years. They met through Heyliger-Thomas’ husband, who went to elementary school with Armstead in Guyana. She said she admires Armstead’s passion for respiratory therapy.
“I like Sharon because she cares. She truly, truly cares,” said Heyliger-Thomas. “If it means that she’s going to spend 24/7 just to make sure an issue that she sees is taken care of, she’s going to do it. She’s got what I call ‘Stick to It-ness.’”
Xiomara Ojeda, one of the students who went to Guyana with Armstead, shared a similar sentiment. Ojeda has known Armstead for two years and said she loves learning from her.
“She just has a lot of passion for what she does, and it’s contagious,” said Ojeda. “She loves helping people and she’s really good at it. You want to learn from her because she just knows so much and she just loves it.”
Texas State University lecturer Holly Wise brought the Texas State Global News Team, comprised of five mass communication students, to document Armstead and her students’ work in Guyana. The two first met in 2017 on a similar study abroad program to Nicaragua. Wise said Armstead shared her vision to bring the program to Guyana.
“She is consistent with her goals, and she’s very stubborn and relentless in bringing those goals to life,” said Wise. “I really respect that and admire that a lot.”
Wise, who knows how much Guyana means to Armstead, said seeing her in Guyana after a year and a half of talking about it was a gift. She said a special moment was seeing Armstead speak to students at Mackenzie High School, where Armstead’s dad used to be the principal.
“That was very emotional because I was up on stage, and I thought, ‘I left here as a student. Now I’m back, as a professor, with my own students.’ I just couldn’t place it,” Armstead said.
She said she called her parents, who still live in Canada, while she was in Guyana to tell them about the trip.
“What’s emotional is, every time I call them, you can hear the regret that they can’t come home because of health,” said Armstead. “[Daddy] knew I was going to be in Guyana that weekend, and he was waiting by the phone with a nurse so he could make sure he got the phone call.”
Armstead, who plans to go back to Guyana in May or June for another mission trip, said, “I make it a point to go back every year.”
SAN MARCOS, TX – Texas State University senior Xiomara Ojeda, a first-generation American who will be the first in her family to graduate college, has wanted to work in healthcare her entire life.
Xiomara Ojeda, from Austin, originally chose to attend Texas State for its nursing program. Once there, she discovered its respiratory care program and decided to change her career path.
In January 2018, Xiomara Ojeda took her knowledge and passion for respiratory therapy to Guyana on a study abroad program. Sharon Armstead, clinical associate professor at Texas State, led the program in conjunction with Bridges Global Medical Missions. It was the university’s first respiratory care study abroad program.
While there, she worked in Georgetown Public Hospital and the Linden Hospital Complex alongside doctors and nurses. She and four other Texas State respiratory care students assisted when needed, educated staff on respiratory therapy and learned what it was like to work in another country.
“[Guyana is] so different but I feel like we just have more things to get our people healthier,” said Xiomara Ojeda. “I’m more grateful for the things that we have [here]. Things that we took for granted. It opened my eyes that we’re very lucky here.”
When working alongside Cuban doctors in Guyana, Xiomara Ojeda sometimes spoke with them in Spanish, her first language. She said it’s not new for her to speak Spanish while working. When she’s working in Austin, she said she will often talk with patients in Spanish so they feel more comfortable.
She learned Spanish at home from her parents who emigrated from El Salvador and Mexico. Xiomara Ojeda said they also taught her to work hard for what she wants.
“My parents always told us, ‘You have to work hard and get an education so you don’t do hard labor like [we’ve] had to,’” said Xiomara Ojeda. “They’ve always said, ‘Go to school, get a degree, do something that you love and you don’t work a day in your life.’ I’ve always wanted to make them proud.”
Xiomara Ojeda’s interest in healthcare started as a child, because she frequented hospitals.
“I was actually born with spina bifida so I had to go to doctor appointments every year,” said Xiomara Ojeda. “I had to go to the hospital and get regular checkups. I would get ultrasounds and X-rays and stuff like that on my back. I grew up around [healthcare]. I fell in love with medicine. I wasn’t scared of it; it didn’t freak me out.”
Ramon Ojeda, Xiomara Ojeda’s younger brother, said he had first-hand experience of her natural pull to healthcare when they were kids. Xiomara Ojeda, 10, nursed Ramon Ojeda, 6, back to health after a hot iron fell on Ramon Ojeda’s head.
“It was on the weekend and both my parents were gone,” said Ramon Ojeda. “I was screaming, and the first thing I remember is my sister [putting] me on a bed. My head was bleeding and she put towels on my head. It was in her nature to take care of people.”
Xiomara Ojeda used supplies she knew were in the house because her mom had worked in the emergency room, transporting patients to different floors.
“My mom used to work at a hospital, and she had a bunch of gauze and medical stuff,” said Xiomara Ojeda. “I started taking the gauze and antibiotics and stuff like that [for Ramon’s head]. I wasn’t scared to deal with blood. I’ve never been scared to deal with blood.”
This spring, Xiomara Ojeda will graduate from Texas State University with a degree in respiratory care. She will be the first in her family to earn a degree, and has been on the dean’s list six semesters.
Sharon Armstead, the director of clinical education at Texas State University, lead the team of respiratory care students in Guyana. Armstead said she’s proud of Xiomara Ojeda’s success.
“Xiomara overcame many odds to be where she is today,” said Armstead. “If you know spina bifida…the fact that she’s overcome that, to graduate, to do all of this on her own and she’s a woman…I think that speaks volumes to her strength of character.”
Ramon Ojeda, a freshman at Texas State University, said seeing his sister on the path to graduate college is a driving factor for himself. He said he remembers Xiomara Ojeda’s first semester of college didn’t go as she planned, but she came out on top.
“She was about to give up and then she got her stuff together,” said Ramon Ojeda. “She showed me what she did…all of this stuff about how to improve. It’s definitely something that helps me; it’s helping me now.”
Xiomara Ojeda is finishing up her last semester of college while working in the adult intensive care unit at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin. After she graduates and passes her board examination, she will be a registered respiratory therapist. She said she isn’t certain where she’ll end up working.
“I really wanted to do adult [care] for a really long time, but I did my internship at Dell Children’s [in Austin] and I just fell in love with working with kids,” said Xiomara Ojeda. “I don’t know if that’s what I want to do, but I’m really highly considering that that’s what I want to do. I really loved working with kids.”
A group of Texas State University respiratory therapy students traveled to Guyana over the winter break to assist nurses and provide training to the developing nation.
Sheik Amir, director of medical and professional services at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation, said there is a need for the specialty in Guyana.
“Respiratory care is a program we are trying to train our nurses to do more and more,” Amir said. “It has its advantages as a specialty, as it relieves nurses from doing all of the duties. A dedicated person doing something is always better than someone doing something they have to do only when they have a bit of time.”
Located in the northeastern tip of South America, Guyana is home to 10 hospitals in the private and public sectors. Respiratory diseases in the country are not regularly documented, due to the insufficient equipment to diagnose the problems, said Sharon Armstead, a respiratory therapist and Texas State University clinical assistant professor who led the study abroad program to Guyana.
“If you look at the diagnostic numbers, they’ll be low,” Armstead said.
“This is because you can’t report a disease if you don’t have the tools to diagnose it.”
While the diseases are not frequently detected, they do not go unnoticed.
“I hope the hospital staff will learn more developed procedures from the [respiratory care] team,” said Elizabeth Gonsalves, deputy CEO of Georgetown Public Hospital. “We are happy to have Texas State here to help us deal with the respiratory problems of Guyana.”
The Ministry of Public Health oversees the delivery of health care services throughout Guyana, as well as distributes funds to hospitals from the financial resources allocated to the Ministry.
“I take great pride in my country,” said the Honorable Volda Lawrence, the minister of public health. “The ministry is doing everything it can to make Guyana a First World country health system.”
Amir said a lack of funding plays a big part in the country not having respiratory therapy as a specialty in the country.
“There won’t be any funding until we have a person here telling us what we need for the specialty,” Amir said. “If you don’t think of something, you won’t be budgeting for it. Now that it’s being put out there and talked about, people will start looking at how to grow the profession.”
With funding allocated to the hospital for equipment, more places than just the emergency room will be able to tend to respiratory problems.
“Getting respiratory therapy brought to Guyana is definitely something we want and need to look into,” Gonsalves said. “Respiratory care as a specialty will help our hospital be able to have more diagnosis stations than just the ER, as that is where most of the diagnoses’ happen.”
Additionally, Gonsalves said there are plans to discuss growing this profession at the board level in due time, as respiratory diseases are becoming a bigger problem.
Originally from Guyana, Armstead remembers her asthma acting up as a child in the country due to the mining for bauxite in the town of Linden.
“Coming back here my asthma still gets bad when I go to Linden,” Armstead said. “When we come to this city, my chest gets a little tighter and it’s harder to breathe.”
Armstead travels to Guyana at least once a year on mission trips through Bridges Global Medical Missions. This organization is also the one that led the study abroad trip, headed by the Atlanta-based nonprofit’s vice president and medical director, Claudette Heyliger-Thomas.
“We wanted to bring Texas State and respiratory therapy to this country in hopes to push patient care to where it needs to be,” Heyliger-Thomas said.
“I’m glad they have gotten to experience what the medial world is like in a developing country.”
The CHEST foundation, an organization dedicated to championing lung health by supporting clinical research, patient education and community service, awarded Armstead a $11,530 grant to fund the donation of respiratory medical equipment to the Georgetown and Linden hospitals.
“We plan to donate as much equipment as we can because we want Guyana to see the importance of respiratory care,” Armstead said. “When I look around, I see nurses, not respiratory therapists. You can’t have a hospital without this profession and I believe we can bring it to Guyana.”
As we all stood in a clustered group at the American Airlines terminal awaiting the last of our study abroad group members to arrive to the San Antonio International Airport, I glanced around and questioned: How will I relate to my peers in the program and where will we feel most comfortable in Guyana?
The introvert in me began to get anxious as I thought about how I would be spending the next 11 days with a group of people I barely knew in an unfamiliar place. I thought back to my reasoning for signing up for this study abroad trip and told myself that if I wanted to experience something new, I would need to find comfort in being uncomfortable.
After a few days of working in Georgetown Public Hospital and sitting window-side during our drives in Georgetown, Guyana, it was nice to take in the view as we passed by the same buildings, shops and seawall every day.
Through our interactions with the locals, we were always greeted with welcoming smiles and open arms. The growing familiarity of our surroundings in Georgetown and the hospitality of the Guyanese people made me feel more comfortable with being abroad.
Our group of mass communication students would get together any chance we had to tell each other our stories of the day. I enjoyed the times we stayed up late talking and the night we decided to stay in and make spaghetti for dinner. By sharing these similar experiences with each other during our study abroad trip, it brought our group closer together.
Throughout the duration of our trip, we also began to learn more about each other – our childhood, our fears, our goals, and much more. I found that I began to feel a sense of belonging with the group of people I once considered strangers.
Never did I think it would be possible to feel this close to a group of people in this short amount of time. As I reflect on our study abroad trip to Guyana, I am grateful for the many friendships that were made on this trip and I could not have asked for a better experience. Together, we created a home away from home in Guyana.
An immersive study abroad program in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication