Scientist Alicia Ryberg immerses herself in the culture of Nicaragua and gains a much greater perspective than she ever anticipated. An ongoing series about Charles River sabbaticals.

The pacific coast in the villages of Limón, Las Salinas and the surrounding communities in Nicaragua is an extremely popular destination for surfers and yogis all over the world. Just inland, however, the rural community faces obstacles to living and thriving. In Nicaragua, a striking percentage of people live in poverty. Though there is universal healthcare, in some places there is a lack of quality care, there are drastic shortages of medical supplies, overcrowded hospitals, and substandard living conditions that put people at risk for communicable diseases and violence. Additionally, deep-seated cultural norms put women especially at risk for abuse.

The Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC), a non-profit based in Philadelphia, PA, exists to improve pediatric and maternal health in the developing world. In Nicaragua, FIMRC exists as “Project Limón” and works to improve the health and wellness of Limón and eight surrounding communities by providing clinical services, extensive community outreach efforts and health education programs. Project Limón partners closely with the government-health post next door in order to fill the healthcare gaps that exist. Though healthcare is available, quality specialized care is often far from the rural areas and hard to access.

FIMRC is assisted by literally thousands of volunteers, such as myself, who participate in the daily activities of Project Limón such as spending an afternoon at the clinic taking vital signs of women and children seeking medical care to assisting on home visits for FIMRC’s outreach programs.

I am a Microbiology technician and a team leader at Charles River Laboratories’ site in Malvern, Pa. I had always wanted to use my talents to serve people in underprivileged communities. I also love spending time with children and I love science—in particular, biology. Specifically, the way our body works together—from the smallest molecule to cells to groups of cells which work together to make up breathing, thinking, feeling complex human beings— is a marvel that will never lose its wonder for me. In an effort to bring together my love of children, biology and my desire to serve the underprivileged abroad, in mid-January, I seized the opportunity to take a 4-week sabbatical in order to volunteer at FIMRC’s Project Limón.

During my stay, I had the opportunity to live with a Nicaraguan family, which allowed me to experience what life is truly like, from speaking/learning Spanish only, to taking bucket baths (due to no running water) and learning what Nicaraguans value – their families and also taking time to rest and take care of oneself.

At the clinic, I spent mornings involved with the outreach programs, which included the Diabetic, Prenatal and Malnutrition programs. The diabetic program visits each community at least once a month to take the blood sugar and blood pressure of the diabetics in the community, check in regarding their diet and medicine habits/needs, and otherwise advise diabetics. The supplies needed to take blood sugar are not readily available, and typically diabetics only have the chance to test their sugar once a week. Additionally, I participated in the prenatal and malnutrition programs by giving chats, or “charlas”, to educate women and families about what they are experiencing during their pregnancy and how they can care for and provide good nutrition to their children who are underweight or malnourished.

Another program I was involved with was called “Los Pipitos”. This is a group of kids who need extra help with their schoolwork and meeting the expectations of their respective level in school. Many of these children have learning disabilities. I worked with these awesome kids to provide extra school help (as well as positive social interactions) two mornings a week. Afternoons were typically spent taking vitals at the clinic for the pediatrician and OB/GYN. Additionally, I was able to improve some of the programs by working with both volunteer staff and Nicaraguan staff to create databases and forms for different outreach programs and test results in an effort to help Project Limon better analyze the healthcare needs of the community.

This social media post I wrote describes a typical day there. “Lucky me, I get to do vitals for both the kiddos and sometimes the women!! This involves the usual—taking temperature, getting height/weight (as this is essential for dosage in little ones), and their head circumference (a good indicator of malnutrition). For women, it’s pretty similar but we also take blood pressure, a skill I’ve picked up here! I’m so enjoying my time with the people here and learning all I can at the clinic and in the community.”

Because I work on the preclinical side of drug development, my work does not allow me to interact directly with patients. Nonetheless I always keep the people who may benefit from the work at Charles River in mind, as it is a great reminder of the importance and purpose of the testing performed within the lab, which ensures that the drugs that reach patients are both safe and effective.

Since I was young, I’ve always had a desire to support children in need across the world that I needed to put into action, which I did by sponsoring a child from Colombia. However, I always wanted to directly interface with those in need abroad by actually going and serving. This sabbatical gave me a chance to do so. Getting to experience how healthcare and health education in Nicaragua is provided (and actually having a hand in providing it) to those with considerably less access to medical care and education than myself was rewarding and eye-opening.

I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to experience a completely different culture and to provide healthcare and related education that is making a visible impact to this underdeveloped community’s quality of life. The people and country of Nicaragua expanded my perspective and both will forever hold a special place in my heart.