For Pharmacy Students, Trip to Amazon Offers New Perspectives
This summer, when fourth-year pharmacy student Thomas Maciulewicz cut his ankle, instead of reaching for antiseptic and a Band-Aid, he relied on the resin of an indigenous Peruvian tree, Sangre de Grado, to heal the wound.
Maciulewicz learned of the method while spending three weeks in the South American country, studying the medicinal properties of botanical plants in the Amazon Rainforest. He, and two other Wegmans School of Pharmacy students—Larysa Khaychuk and Yelena Pishtay-Leshchik—along with nine students from pharmacy schools across the country, engaged in a rotation under the guidance of Dr. Barbara Brodman, professor emeritus at Nova Southeastern University.
Brodman is president of the Global Awareness Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving rainforests. Since 1999, GAI has led student groups to the organization’s 92-acre reserve and research center near Iquitos, Peru, to learn about medicinal plants. This is the second year that Wegmans School of Pharmacy students have engaged in the rotation trip to Peru.
Before leaving for rotation, the students were asked to complete a research study that compares and contrasts alternative botanical medicine native to South America to what’s available pharmaceutically in the United States.
“This project gave us the mindset of what we would be experiencing once we arrived,” said Maciulewicz, who studied acute mountain sickness and looked at guideline treatments for the illness in the United States and the toxicology, cultural relevance, and evidence of use for cocoa leaves in treating the condition.
While in Peru, the students took classes through the National University of the Peruvian Amazonia and National Institute for Traditional Medicine. There, they learned about ethnobotany and pharmacognosy, gleaning a better understanding of how Amazonian tribes historically use plants for medicine. While on guided tours of the jungle, each student maintained a plant portfolio, cataloging the species with its common, family, and scientific names, medicinal purpose, and directions for use.
“The experience offered a different way to explore how we, as human beings, approach medicine,” said Maciulewicz. “Modern medicine doesn’t really understand how traditional methods work. Both the University and research institute look at these medicines and try to draw exact lab science out of them to better understand them.”
In addition to the immense learning experience, the trip also afforded the Fisher students a chance to explore the Amazon. The team camped in the jungle, and traveled 45 minutes by canoe to Iquitos every day to take classes and meet with botanist, taxonomists, pharmacists, herbalists, and farmers.
“The canoes and paddles were carved and hallowed out by hand,” explained Maciulewicz, who said the rowing was hard, but fostered a sense of teamwork among the students. And, it helped prepare them for an unforgettable 8-hour, 100-mile canoe trip down the Amazon River to a nature reserve.
The trip highlighted concerns about Amazon deforestation and the consequences of the logging and cattle industries on the land.
“It raised awareness of what’s being lost through this,” he said. “We were able to look at the plants from a health care, economics, and cultural perspective.”
For Maciulewicz, the experience also underscored the importance of cultural competency when delivering health care.
“If you can understand where someone is coming from culturally, you can adapt modern methods for treating ailments, conditions, and disease,” he explained. “If you can put yourselves in their shoes, it can give you the mindset to look for a solution that respects their cultural sanctity and allows you to help them with whatever condition they have.”