June 17, 2010
A group of North Carolina students in Guatemala for a summer course chipped in with disaster relief efforts when their trip was interrupted by a volcanic eruption and a tropical storm in late May.
The eruption of the Pacaya volcano and the landfall of Tropical Storm Agatha led to the students, the majority of whom are East Carolina University nursing students, working with relief agencies to dig out roads to remote villages and entertain children who had been displaced by disaster.
"It is strangely lucky that we were there because we were able to help," said Erin Trowbridge, a senior ECU nursing major. "We got to come together as a village and as a community to help. That is an experience that not everyone gets when they travel."
Kim Larson, a professor at ECU"s College of Nursing, takes a group of students to Guatemala every year for three weeks as an elective course. The students study Spanish in the mornings and work at local clinics and provide health education in rural areas in the afternoon.
The group this year included eight nursing students from ECU, two ECU students from other health care fields, a student from N.C. State University and a student from UNC-Chapel Hill. The students stayed with Guatemalan families in the small village of San Miguel Escobar, about 15 miles from the city of Antigua.
The group arrived in Guatemala on May 23. On May 27, they were planning to hike the in the Volcan De Pacaya national park but were turned back because the volcano was showing signs of erupting.
The park features lava rivers that flow down from the Pacaya volcano. But the rumbling mountain was about to violently erupt just as the group was arriving at the park.
"We were able to drive down a cow path to see what was happening," Larson said. "We were about five miles from the volcano and we watched the initial eruption and took pictures."
The volcano erupted later that evening and rained ash down over a large area surrounding it. The ash forced airports to close across the country and forced 2,000 people to evacuate.
"This is a volcano that we have climbed for the last two years," Larson said.
But an even bigger danger was brewing in the Pacific Ocean in the form of Tropical Storm Agatha which would bring heavy rain and mud slides to Guatemala two days later.
Being relatively cut off from outside news, the group of students did not know that Agatha was about to strike the country and were on the way across Lake Atitlan, Guatemala's largest lake, to a remote hospital when heavy wind and rains reached them.
Mud slides from the storm forced the group to stay in a hotel near the lake for two days before they were able to return to their village to help their host families in San Miguel Escobar. The group heard that several children had died in the village during the storm.
"It hit our village very hard and by chance we weren't there," Trowbridge said. "We were very concerned about our families in the village because there was no way to communicate with them."
Two students in the group moved in with Trowbridge and her host family because the storm damaged the houses they were staying in.
Trowbridge said her father was frantically trying to reach her after news of the storm reached the United States.
"I got to talk to him for about two minutes just to say that I was OK," she said.
The group made it back to San Miguel Escobar after two days where they joined forces with relief efforts to clear roads from mud slide debris. The group worked for two days digging out roads and spending time with about 100 children who were living in a refuge camp nearby.
Trowbridge, who is from Kent, Ohio, hopes to work at Charlotte's Levine Children's Hospital after she graduates in December. She said the experience was great preparation for the nursing field.
"You can't plan for everything," she said. "You always need to be thinking on your toes and doing whatever you feel is right for the people that you need to take care of."
By the end of the trip, the group was back to educating children in remote villages on nutrition, sanitation and dental care. The group also worked in a center for undernourished children for four days before returning to the United States this week.
The effort to clean up ash from the volcano eruption continues as most of the work is being done by hand, Larson said.
This story originally appeared at http://www.reflector.com/news/ecu-students-help-people-guatemala-38757 .