IRR students learn survival and medical skills in Nicaragua

Piling into the rusty, 10-wheel, 1969 military vehicle, the students sent up a prayer. Sure, there are bugs. And heat. And humidity. But with a sick two-year-old in need of care and the nearest hospital two hours away, all of those hardships became irrelevant. This is the reality the twelve students and three staff from Union College's International Rescue and Relief (IRR) program have faced during their semester long stay in Nicaragua while providing medical care to severely under-served communities.

The group has done everything from repair projects and medical clinics to survival training—not to mention climbing coconut trees and finding edible plants in their free time.

“Now we all know how to catch fish with a line and make Hawaiian slings and spear guns,” said Tiffany Simmons, IRR program office manager who accompanied the group more than 3,000 miles away from the office.

Before the team could enjoy a week of spring break on Little Corn Island—about 43 miles of the east coast of Nicaragua—the group endured three days of jungle survival, two days of beach survival and 24 hours of ocean survival. That survival week alone required students to draw from all of their previous knowledge.

“This is a culminating experience of all the classes these students have taken in college,” explained Rick Young, director of the IRR program. Young recently returned from visiting the group along with Malcolm Russell, vice president for academic administration. 

The group is staying at Tasba Raya Adventist Mission (TRAM) clinic, located in the village of Francia Sirpi, in the Miskito Indian region of Nicaragua. The mission strives to represent Christ to the people of the area by helping to meet their physical, educational and spiritual needs.

The IRR team has helped residents from other villages as well. At the Kutu Tingni medical clinic, the IRR team provided medical services and ran a small pharmacy in an area that had not received care for two years.

Every child treated there received a vitamin, deworming and a coloring sheet to pass the time. Those with more serious conditions, like the sick 2-year-old, receive further assistance. Prenatal care is also a popular service. Since the IRR team has the only vehicle (nicknamed "The Deuce"), serious cases are transported two hours to the nearest hospital.

“Two weeks ago, Kalie O'Brien (Senior IRR and religion major) and I were able to assist in a local birth here in Francia Sirpi,” said Kaity Molé, senior IRR major. “Despite some complications with the birth, it all went well and was an exciting experience.”

Others saw a suspected tuberculosis case, performed two surgical procedures, and stabilized two children with broken arms. There was even a case of cervical cancer.

Molé also led a health class for adults about Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The team has also worked to finish several building projects to serve to their host communities. The IRR department funds construction projects abroad and is always looking for more donations. This semester, the students created a clean water Biosand system for residents. This water system uses sand to effectively filter water before drinking. Studies have shown the Biosand filter can remove more than 90% of bacteria and 100% of parasites, dramatically increasing the safety of the water. (

Union's Frontier Nursing class joined the IRR team over spring break, providing additional medical expertise. Much of their trip was spent in clinics vaccinating children. 

Each year, the Frontier Nursing class takes a group of faculty and students to a Central American country to provide healthcare. Like the IRR program, going abroad is key to broadening horizons and instilling a passion for service in students.

The IRR program, the only degree program of its kind, allows students to get intensive medical experience through opportunities to overseas. All students become certified as emergency medical technicians and complete training in wilderness survival, search and rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue and other emergency preparedness skills.

Teams of IRR students and instructors have responded to a number of natural disasters, including the Birmingham, Ala. tornado outbreak in April 2011 and in Haiti immediately following the January 2010 earthquake.

“Reaching out, to me, is the best learning experience,” explained Young. “Especially for those who are going into service fields.”

For more information on the IRR program check out: