SMU Podiatry, Nursing Students Embark on Medical Mission to Mexican Border

SMU students with patient's foot Megan Allen traveled to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010 with a podiatrist she was working for in Arizona. Witnessing the positive impact that a small-town physician made on Haitians living amid the rubble in Port-au-Prince and desperate for medical care inspired her to pursue a career in podiatry.

Volunteer service continues to be a driving force in Allen’s life now that she is a student at the California School of Podiatric Medicine (CSPM) at Samuel Merritt University (SMU).

On March 12, Allen will travel for her third time to San Ysidro on the U.S-Mexican border between San Diego and Tijuana to provide free foot care and primary health services to a community with unmet medical needs.

This is the seventh consecutive year that SMU podiatric students have given up their spring break for a two-day medical mission to San Ysidro. The trip – which will include a mix of students from different specialties – also provides opportunities for SMU students to engage in an interdisciplinary professional setting, just as they will after graduation.SMU students taping a foot

This year, 23 podiatry students will team with four Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) students, an occupational therapy (OT) student, and five faculty clinicians to evaluate and treat foot and ankle conditions as well as conduct health screenings for diabetes and vascular disease.

As in previous years, the students will set up a clinic at the Centro Romero community center by splitting up the room with accordion dividers so they can see 10 to 12 patients at a time, spending up to an hour with each one and often with entire families.

“You get a unique experience in San Ysidro,” says Allen, one of the mission’s student leaders. “You have to be creative with the resources you are given there. This trip is 100 percent student funded and we bring down donated supplies. Sometimes we don’t have the exact tool or medicine we need and you have to think outside the box and still provide the best possible treatment for the patients.”

Group of SMU students around patient Participating on the mission provides invaluable clinical experiences for the students, especially the novices who learn from their more veteran classmates while also collaborating with their peers from other medical disciplines.

Podiatry student Bukky Oseni-Olalemi, who served on the mission for the past three years as a way of “paying it forward,” recalls feeling anxious and confused while presenting a patient to an attending physician as a first-year student.

“It was a whirlwind of emotions, but by the end my confidence grew immensely as well as my knowledge,” says Oseni-Olalemi.

“The students mature right in front of your eyes,” says Dr. Timothy Dutra, a CSPM assistant professor who has served as a supervising clinician on all of the Three SMU students previous trips to San Ysidro. “For many, this is their first real clinical experience with an underserved population and a different culture. When they return, they are much more advanced in their clinical skills.”

As many as a third of the SMU students who travel to San Ysidro—the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere—are able to speak some Spanish and are eager to improve their medical vocabulary, translators are also available.

Most of the 150 or so patients who attend the clinic each year lack access to healthcare. They range from young children to elderly, and some cross the border from Mexico to seek care. For some of the patients, according to Dutra, it is their only access to healthcare all year and the only time they’ve been evaluated by a medical professional.

“Some of the patients never knew they had high blood pressure or pre-diabetes, so we refer them to local clinics for continued care,” he says.

The SMU team also distributes donated shoes, socks and orthotic inserts. Some patients return each year and show their thanks by cooking for the SMU students and faculty clinicians.

“Everyone there want us to be there and they actively listen and participate in the diagnostic evaluations,” says Dutra. “They are the most appreciative, grateful group.”

To make a donation to the medical mission, contact Dr. Timothy Dutra at or 510-869-6511 ext. 7564 

Photos via CSPM from the 2014 trip.

Read more about our global outreach here.

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