Skip Navigation
The Catalyst

Nurse pursues global challenges

By Kevin Wiley
Center for Global Health

If you think sailing from Hawaii to San Francisco is tough, try establishing sustainable health care infrastructure in a politically autonomous and indigenous province in the Central American country of Panama. Natalia Davila has accomplished the former and is in progress to fulfill the latter. Although these are both daunting pursuits, she has thought very little of the difficulty involved.

On the island of Ustupu, Natalia Davila walks through the main square on her way to the pediatric clinic. Bottom right photo: Davila holds an infant with hydrocephalus after a shunt placement procedure at the Bugando Hospital Mwanza in Tanzania. photos provided

“I love working with people who gravitate toward these types of challenging opportunities, whether sailing or humanitarian work,” Davila said. “These people put experience and helping others above everything. They’re people who climb mountains to see the world, not for the world to see them.”

Davila is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a specialization in developmental pediatrics at MUSC Children’s Care Clinic in North Charleston. She received her baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate training in nursing at MUSC.

“I love giving what I have to give, which is taking care of children. And to be able to share it is pretty cool,” Davila said. “My training and experience at MUSC helped prepare me for activities in the United States and abroad.”

Davila has been drawn to global health first through fieldwork, helping treat hydrocephalus in Tanzania, and most recently by traveling to Kuna Yala, Panama with Indigenous Health International. IHI is a non-profit medical mission operation created by MUSC physician Leonard Egede, M.D., to build capacity and sustainable health systems in low-resource settings across the globe. IHI’s mission is to establish self-sustaining health systems in predetermined locales in a five year period—an ambitious, but surmountable feat. Partnerships with the local and national governments have made this particular project relatively seamless in executing the objectives outlined by the group.

Dr. Leonard Egede

“You have to be persistent in reaching out to people in these types of projects; it’s important to gain trust,” Davila said. “Simple things like Fanta soda help break down barriers of trust to be able to do the work we’ve enlisted ourselves to do.”

Davila comforts a Tanzanian child following a procedure. She is working through Indigenous Health International, a non-profit medical mission operation established by MUSC’s Dr. Leonard Egede to build sustainable health systems in third world areas across the globe.

IHI is currently working to build health system capacity in Kuna Yala, Panama, an autonomous region in eastern Panama that also demarcates other areas of Central and South America. This region is so rural that Google Maps offers no estimation of how long it takes to reach the eastern coast near Kuna Yala by any means.

Challenges abound for IHI in this particular region of Central America. The primary language spoken in Panama is Spanish, whereas the people of the Kuna Yala region speak Tule, a language foreign to most visitors and comparable to many traditional Native American dialects.

Even more formidable are the cays—and other less habitable land formations—that the Kuna inhabit, posing challenges for Natalia and her colleagues. The closest airport is in Panama City, a nearly five-hour drive to Kuna. This is just a glimpse into the difficulty of creating long-lasting programs in indigenous regions of the world. The tenacious, undeterred spirit of Egede, Davila and their team is what’s needed to fulfill the goals and mission of IHI.

“We got to meet with the governing body at the end of the trip and they thanked us for the help we provided them,” said Davila. “One of the most touching things they said to us was that they felt they had seen disease take a step backwards since we arrived in Kuna, and that their people felt healthier.”

IHI is gearing up to implement their models of health system development in the Congo, Rwanda and Kenya to work with marginalized populations in Africa. They hope by working in these regions they are able to provide greater understanding of why it is important to use research dollars where diseases are novel but easily prevented.

An argument can be made that Americans are rarely exposed to tropical disease, but in order to continue to stave off a disease’s advances they must be treated and researched where they are, which in many cases can’t be found in the developed world.

Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from MUSC Center for Global Health

October 19, 2013

© 2013  Medical University of South Carolina | Disclaimer