UCF medical student Dennrik Abrahan (right) demonstrates the new infant resuscitation technique. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tom Lacy)

Dennrik Abrahan spent more than two months in Haiti this summer testing the skills he has learned as a medical student at the University of Central Florida.

He took medical histories and watched doctors treat rare illnesses.

“When you work with a patient in the field, you think, ‘Wow, I’ve learned a lot.’ The learning makes more sense,” Abrahan said.

But most importantly, Abrahan helped save lives.

He trained Haitian midwives and doctors in a procedure to help resuscitate babies born with breathing difficulties, giving them a better chance of survival. It’s a new technique developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization especially for rural communities where professional healthcare can be 50 miles away or farther.

In June pediatrician and College of Medicine mentor Dr. Tom Lacy and a University of Florida medical student joined Abrahan in his effort.

“We strongly believe in sustainable healthcare,” said Lacy, who helped establish the nonprofit Hands Up for Haiti. “All the doctor volunteers in our group treat, but we also educate because we want to help people take care of themselves.”

The infant mortality rate in Haiti is high – with 70 out of 1,000 babies dying compared to the U.S. rate of 16 out of 1,000.

Kits needed to resuscitate babies are expensive — $220 each — and they can’t be found in Haiti. So the Walt Disney Pavilion at Florida Hospital for Children donated money to Hands Up for Haiti, and volunteers bought kits. Thirteen Haitian midwives and doctors were trained and can go back to their villages and teach 10 more providers.

This was not the first trip for either student or mentor.

Now a second-year medical student in the College of Medicine, Abrahan has been traveling to Haiti since he was an undergraduate at UCF. In fact, he is the volunteer coordinator for another non-profit organization – Haiti Village Health.

Lacy began his trips in 2010 shortly after a tremendous earthquake crippled the country and injured and killed thousands. It was that experience that made Lacy start Hands Up for Haiti. The group, which includes physicians from New York and New Jersey, has six trips planned for 2011.

The latest trip wasn’t just about saving babies, Lacy said. It’s also a learning experience he highly recommends for students who can afford it. Because of a U.S. Department of State travel warning, Florida medical schools cannot send students to Haiti. So students interested must use their vacation time and pay their own way. But it is well worth it.

“It’s such a tremendous experience,” Lacy said. “From a clinical point of view, they see pathology in four days which they wouldn’t see in a whole year of medical school.”

Students get to practice what Lacy calls “pure medicine.”

“In some countries, like Haiti, you have to rely on medical histories and exams,” he said. “There are no labs, no x-rays, they just don’t have access to them. There’s no back up, so students are forced to use the clinical skills they learn.”

When he graduates, Abrahan said he plans to do international work to help those without access to medical care. He says it’s a way to give back for all the learning he’s received.

For Lacy and the second medical student, his daughter, a third-year medical student at the University of Florida, the experience has been life changing.

“There is a great feeling of fulfillment,” Lacy said. “There is more than just donating money happening here, we’re helping others save lives.”