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Exploring Healthcare in Panama
by Shirley Blake, Director of Communications

Belldegrun Center for Innovative Leadership summer students partner with Floating Doctors in Bocas del Toro

For the first time, during the Summer at Brentwood program, the Belldegrun Center for Innovative Leadership (BCIL) presented several distinctive course offerings for students across all three divisions.​​“What better way for our students to live the BCIL mission to engage with real-world challenges and
to explore solutions than in the very environments in which they exist? ” 

—Kristen Letchworth, Director of Service Learning, Middle School and BCIL Entrepreneurship and Summer Programs Director

In focus here is the Global Health course, a three-week elective for Upper School students, which included two weeks of on-campus instruction and workshop-based curriculum focusing on major global health issues and important skill sets for addressing them, plus a one-week trip to work on site in Panama. 

This important field component, led by chaperones Michael Kahn and Laura Feucht, included clinical deployments with Floating Doctors, living and working with an international medical team to achieve health outcomes for an indigenous population that has been severely marginalized. 

Students had the opportunity to sit in on age-appropriate consults, participate in health education activities, and interact with health professionals from around the world. 

Sponsored by the BCIL, this course aligns with its mission to prepare community members to engage with real world challenges and explore solutions within and beyond the classroom.

Designed to provide students with a lens into issues that are currently occurring in healthcare around the world, the course gave them impactful first-hand opportunities to see the differences between how healthcare is provided in the U.S. and Panama. 

Dr. Ben LaBrot, the founder of Floating Doctors and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the USC Keck School of Medicine, in collaboration with Katie McKellar, BCIL Upper School Curriculum Innovator and Collaborator, and Drew Park, Upper School Director of Service Learning, history teacher, and instructor for the summer Global Health course, created opportunities for our students to think critically about the challenges facing modern health systems. 

One of the BCIL students mentioned she had a dog at home, and soon this girl, who was from the village, came running back to share her dog with the group.

“I had so much fun helping brainstorm ideas for this course because we each had different areas of expertise and were able to build on each other’s ideas,” said McKellar. “Drew and I come from the perspective of history and geography teachers, and wanted students to think about the impact of culture and context on the delivery of healthcare. Drew was excited to have students apply what they learned from this course to situations in Los Angeles, and because of his work as Community Service Director, he knew the VA would be an excellent community partner. Immediately, Ben jumped in and explained the idea of reverse innovation in the healthcare field. I had been doing a lot of work integrating design thinking into our curricular offerings so I suggested we arrange for some empathy interviews at the VA. This snowball of ideas happened in about two minutes, and suddenly we had envisioned a whole project for the class.” 

For instance, students observed the eldercare facility at the V.A. and compared it to a similar facility in Panama, learning about the benefits and challenges of each. In the end, students engaged in an activity that asked them to try to think outside the box and find innovative solutions to improve the lives of the residents based on research and first-person interviews with residents in both areas. The ideas they came up with had lots of potential.

Additionally, students were tasked with presenting basic hygiene techniques to young children in Panama. They had to figure out how to make it accessible to large age groups, as well as how they would overcome the language barrier (although some students used their Spanish skills while on the trip.) As they were preparing, students practiced their presentations to kindergarteners at Summer at Brentwood Lower Camp, allowing them to take risks, make mistakes, and correct them.

In one of the closing activities, students engaged in a mini-council where they shared highlights and challenges from the trip, as well as one thing that they wanted to take away from the experience. The depth and earnestness of their answers, and their willingness to sit in silence and listen to each other, was extremely impressive. 

“Honestly, the class surpassed my own expectations,” said Park. “I was hopeful that students would be able to gain something from the experience, but I did not anticipate how much the three-week class would impact them. Two students have already started a Global Health Club on campus, to raise awareness and help fund Floating Doctors. In addition, multiple students were clamoring for a Global Health 2.0 class, where they could stay engaged with the complex global health issues facing our world for an even longer period of time. I was extremely moved by their passion and look forward to seeing where it will take them.”

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