September 12, 2008

UCSD students make a difference in Nicaragua

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

When he was growing up in Tijuana, Lisandro Maya used to think the health care system in Mexico was a mess.

That was his opinion until he spent three weeks in Managua, Nicaragua, last year as part of a non-profit that is dedicated to the betterment of healthcare and quality of life for the people of the Central American nation.

That’s when he realized the Mexican health system could be worst –like Nicaragua’s, for example.

UCSD students Lisandro Maya, Elieth Martinez, and Nicholas Gastelum at the Neurosurgery department of El Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca.

“The infrastructure of the Nicaraguan public health system, the facilities, the access to health care by the poor, all of that is definitely worst than in Mexico,” said Maya, who is a senior majoring in human biology at the University of California, San Diego. “I didn’t know anything about Nicaragua. It surprised me to see all the poverty that exists there. At the hospital, the chairs were broken, the rooms where the patients were are really hot.”

Maya is co-chair of Project Nicaragua, a nonprofit organization at UCSD and UCLA that takes pre-med students to help at the Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca, in Managua, where students distribute medical supplies and help with the daily consultations. Students also go to rural areas where the held community clinics for people who don’t have the means to travel to Managua.

In order to gather money for the items taken to Nicaragua, the UCSD students organize different fundraising events, such as silent auctions, and they also sell concessions at Qualcomm Stadium and PETCO Park and get commissions based on the profits made.

“We are volunteers, so we have to pay for own trip to Nicaragua,” said Maya, who plans to become a cardiologist.

Project Nicaragua’s statement of purpose is to provide medical relief to Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca; to advance the clinical study on barriers to healthcare in Nicaragua; to provide experiences for future leaders in medicine, public health, and public policy committed to improving the healthcare of the globally underserved; and to provide unique training experiences to physicians in the United States and in Nicaragua.

“Project Nicaragua has helped me as a student in many ways because it has drawn me past the usual biology and chemical studies I surrounded myself with and into politics and economics, which both greatly control healthcare systems in any country,” said Whitney Kelsch, a 4th year Chemistry student at UCSD and Project Nicaragua co-director.

“I have also been able to watch the organization grow from a very small scale which has taught me multiple principles I will need for my own personal goals after medical school,” Kelsch said.

Currently, Project Nicaragua has seven members at the UCSD chapter and 15 at the UCLA chapter, Maya said. In addition to the students, there’s a whole army of volunteer doctors who travel with the students to Nicaragua each summer to perform surgeries at Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca.

Students who participate in Project Nicaragua do so for the love of helping other human beings, Maya said.

“You don’t get any monetary compensation. Basically, it has to come from your heart, if you want to do it. It’s something you feel proud of; it’s something that gives you warmth. Our focus is on helping other people, from our hearts,” he said.

Maya also said that people in the United States who would like to donate to Project Nicaragua should do so “to be more sensitive to the situation outside of the United States. We have to realize that there’s a world out there with high levels of poverty. Over there, in Nicaragua, with just a little, you make a big difference in the lives of many people.”

To learn more about Project Nicaragua and to make a donation, visit

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