MAFP Member Brings Family Medicine to Ecuador and Guatemala


Dr. Barbara Saul (Troy), spent more than 30 years practicing as a Family Physician in Michigan and since her retirement earlier this year, she has continued to stay involved in health care. She is an active MAFP member where she serves on the Board of Directors, and in her role as assistant clinical professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Saul has been able to combine her medical knowledge with her passion of helping others.

One way she does this is by bringing medical students on service trips to South America. Saul recently returned from two months spent in Ecuador and Guatemala where she was able to mentor students in rural clinics, work as a Family Physician, and assist with other challenges faced by developing countries.

“It is so rewarding to help out all the different families in these villages,” said Saul. “To wake up every day and know you are making a difference in someone’s life is an amazing feeling.”

The first part of the trip was in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, which is the country’s second largest city. There she intensively studied the Spanish language–something she’s always wanted to do–at Pop-Wuj, a Spanish immersion school. Saul spent half of her day learning the language and the other half of the day with students and residents in the medical clinic. She also worked as a physician in outlying rural clinics and even helping to build concrete block stoves.

“After speaking with a social worker in the area I learned many of the medical problems residents run into are similar to the ones experienced by many other developing countries,” said Saul. “Malnutrition, child development issues, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease were all common. Malnutrition was a particular problem for children and infants.”

At the rural clinic, Saul and her team assessed malnutrition and provided dietary supplementation in addition to providing information about sanitation, hand-washing, food-washing, and food safety. Saul also utilized the computers at Pop-Wuj to find culturally appropriate YouTube videos to educate on topics such as nutrition, sanitation, domestic abuse and child development; all of these were well received by the locals.

“I remember showing one of these videos about child development from conception to two years of age to my homestay house mother,” said Saul. “She cried about the lack of knowledge, but also cried from excitement about the teaching potential these videos had to educate the village women about appropriate steps they can take for healthy child development.”

By the end of her five week stay in Guatemala, Saul was able to communicate comfortably in Spanish, and was pleased with the amount of work she and her team were able to do.

The second part of the trip took her to Cotuna, Ecuador where she met up with 15 second-year medical students from the Wayne State University School of Medicine world health student organization.  This group set out on the trip to start a medical clinic with money raised prior to the trip.

“The world health student organization is involved in rural clinics in Haiti and Ecuador,” said Saul. “The students’ cultural sensitivity and Spanish language usage amazed me and made me extremely proud of the young women and men we are teaching in our medical schools.”

The clinic was designed so it would be sustainable for the community even after the medical students left, and Saul and her students spent a lot of time speaking with the community to make sure they were doing so. The Wayne State students who accompanied Saul on this trip will be returning in May to continue to help the clinic grow.

“The highlight of this trip for me was working with villages to develop quality health care they probably would not see otherwise,” said Saul. “Many of the people told me what a difference our presence makes for them; they say the opportunities for community growth, health development, and working together on the social determinants of health, as well as significant medical issues, makes a huge difference for them.”

Saul also spoke on how this trip helped mold her into a better Family Physician and what message this trip brought back for others.

“Whether in Michigan, another state, or another country, the best health care is delivered with cultural competency and an eye for how to work with the social determinants of health,” said Saul. “I know that the students will be better physicians for having exposure to this and significant opportunities to learn cultural competency and sensitivity from working in Ecuador, Guatemala or any developing area. I, too, know I have grown and become a more competent physician because of my time spent there.”

For those interested in learning more about trips like this, or have a story of your own to share, please contact MAFP Headquarters at or 517.347.0098.

Additional Resources on Family Medicine Service Trips

-AAFP Global Health Opportunities

-AAFP Foundation Family Medicine Cares

-Consortium of Universities for Global Health

-WONCA–the World Organization of Family Doctors