Olean High School graduate Eli Hendrix, class of 2018, left for Ohio University late last summer to begin his journey in public health and medicine.
He just completed another important step along his path, returning this weekend from a month-long internship in the South American nation of Ecuador, taking part in work to benefit community health and sustainable living as well as research in the fight against an incurable tropical disease.
A recipient of the Ann Lee Hancock Konneker-Cutler Scholarship at OU, Eli and his fellow program participants helped build a new home for a family in Bellamaría, while also helping to establish productive family and community gardens.
But a crux of the internship involved entomological searches — essentially seeking bugs — in an effort to combat Chagas disease, an insect-borne tropical ailment that is only rarely fatal initially but can lead to acute heart, nervous system and digestive system problems years later.
In a journal on his experiences, Eli, son of Olean’s Kelly and Mike Hendrix, writes that he searched village homes for the “kissing bug,” often known in Latin America as vinchuca. The bug does indeed suck human blood — usually while a person is sleeping — but that’s not the problem. The bug swells so much from feeding that it defecates, leaving the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi in the victim’s bloodstream.
There is no vaccine for Chagas, named for the Brazilian doctor who discovered it in 1909, so the focus of prevention is eradicating vinchuca from the home and protecting sleepers with bednets.
Overall, Eli called his experience “life-changing” and that he learned as much or more from the residents of the communities he worked in than his group could impart on public health practices.
“I am happy to have been open to this idea of listening before acting because at the end of the first day, I understood that learning can be a two-way street,: he writes. “During conversations with the members of the communities, I discovered new definitions of the words dedication, community, happiness and wealth. Before, I related the word wealth with an economic meaning. The people in the community showed me how wealth and happiness can have other meanings within different social and economic contexts.
“The fact that community members help their neighbors build their houses and gardens really helps raise collective morale, which in turn makes people feel empowered. I am happy to have been able to help change the lives of a family and train the members of the community by providing my services to build a new Chagas-free home.”