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Brigading for Better Health

WRITTEN BY JOSEPH MCGUIRE

Joseph McGuire, a native of Philippi, is a first-year medical student at West Virginia University. He attended WVU as an undergraduate, majoring in biology with an area of emphasis in genomics. McGuire served as the president of WVU’s Global Medical Brigades, which partnered with Global Dental Brigades to provide pro-bono medical and dental consultations to extremely impoverished areas of Panama and Nicaragua. He also had leadership roles in the Mountaineer Marching Band and as a senator in the Student Government Association. He participated in cancer research for several years, is a 2018 Honors Scholar, magna cum laude graduate of WVU and Mountain Honorary inductee.

The temperature is dropping, the leaves are changing and as I drive past the marching band practice field, I can’t help but reminisce about when I first stepped onto that concrete.

When I first came to WVU, I only knew a handful of people from my high school. I was eager to make a name for myself and achieve my dream of going to medical school, so I tried to get involved with as much as I could. I had loved band in high school and decided to try out for “The Pride,” which turned out to be the best decision I made in my four years as an undergraduate at WVU.

It led to multiple leadership positions within the band, a connection that landed me in a cancer research lab – something I had only dreamed of doing in high school – and, most importantly, it introduced me to an exceptional individual named Joy Wang.

She was, at the time, president of Global Medical Brigades, and as soon as we met, we hit it off. I told her of my hopes and dreams, and she encouraged me to apply to her organization that included tons of like-minded people trying to make a difference in the world.

The following spring, I traveled with a little over 30 pre-health students and two faculty members to Panama, where we saw roughly 530 patients in our clinic over the span of four days. I witnessed things that most people would never want to or get the chance to see: crippling infrastructure, absolute poverty, terrible health disparities, pregnant pre-teens and several other humanistic travesties.

Students holding flag; student working

It was then when I realized that there was something about healthcare I had gotten wrong my entire life — the doctor’s office is just a piece of the puzzle, not the entire picture. The Global Brigades organization brings this truth to light with their emphasis on what they call the “holistic model.” This model highlights that a community’s well-being doesn’t just rely on health systems, but also relies on proper sanitation and infrastructure to provide clean water to break the cycle of recurring preventable disease. People need water without disease-causing pathogens, places to bathe and actual floors to walk on to remain in good health – something we all probably take for granted. As a future physician, this is something I needed desperately to be cognizant about.

“I was just a kid from a small town in West Virginia with dreams of going to medical school, and I ended up helping to lead a group of students to Central America to facilitate pro-bono medical care – a true testament to the WVU experience.” — Joseph McGuire
When I arrived back in the United States towards the end of spring break, I felt changed and, as odd as it sounds, refreshed. I had felt like I made a real difference in the world and learned more about the field I had always dreamed of going into, all while meeting lifelong friends and mentors that I still talk to almost every day. I knew from that point on, that this organization was something I wanted to commit to throughout my college career, so I ran for a leadership position and was chosen as the secretary for the following year.

Fast forward another year from there, and I was selected to be the president of Global Medical Brigades – a role that altered my life in so many different ways. It gave me the opportunity to run meetings, be a major part in planning incredible experiences, develop a website and most importantly (in my mind), impact the next class of future doctors, dentists and overall humanitarians. I couldn’t stay away.

We grew as an organization over those two years I served as president in more ways than I could’ve imagined. Some things we started doing that I especially loved were giving younger student leaders the opportunity to manage the work we did in our clinics, as a doctor or dentist may do at their place of work. We also started having experienced Spanish-speakers within the organization teach Spanish to the others and having the EMTs and nurses of the group teach the group how to properly take vital signs — essential skills that aren’t normally obtained until later on.

And to think, all of this was supplemental to the incredible education I received in the lecture halls of the Life Sciences Building. I was just a kid from a small town in West Virginia with dreams of going to medical school, and I ended up helping to lead a group of students to Central America to facilitate pro-bono medical care – a true testament to the WVU experience.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what field of medicine will be the one I end up in. What is most important to me is being in a position where I can provide the absolute best care to my patients, while still having the time to have an impact in my community and, ultimately, on the world.

My biology degree, which got me here in the first place, is much more than a piece of paper that hangs on my wall now. It is the culmination of all the experiences and knowledge that have created the me that I am today. It is a reminder of all the important lessons WVU taught me: sometimes, when the trail gets tough, you just have to keep climbing. Come climb at WVU. Come change the world.

Joseph McGuire
Joseph McGuire