By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff writer | Published August 4, 2017 | En Español
FLOWERY BRANCH—Serving the poor in Nicaragua inspired three young women, all onetime parishioners of Prince of Peace Church, to choose careers in medicine.
Rachel Johnson, Alex Olney and Anna Sulimirski Strasma all began volunteering as children with Amigos for Christ, a nonprofit organization that grew out of a youth group project at Prince of Peace in 1999.
Amigos volunteers work in and around the city of Chinandega, in the northwest part of the Central American country. They labor to bring clean water to communities, build schools, teach disease prevention, foster small economic development projects, and other initiatives.
John Bland, who at the time was a youth group leader at Prince of Peace, founded the nonprofit in the devastation after Hurricane Mitch, which struck Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, in late 1998.
Dr. Johnson and Dr. Strasma graduated from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University May 11 and have started residencies. Johnson’s residency is in internal medicine at WellStar Kennestone Regional Medical Center in Marietta. Strasma began her residency at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, in June. Dr. Olney, also an MCG graduate, is in her second year of residency in Augusta in obstetrics and gynecology, which includes a research project on gestational diabetes.
Strasma first went to Nicaragua when she was 11 years old with her mother, Tessa Sulimirski, who had been volunteering with Amigos for a couple of years.
Since that first mission trip, Strasma has returned many times.
“I’ve gone every year, sometimes twice a year,” she said.
During summers, she would sometimes go for three-month stays.
For the first mission trip, volunteers were building a school and Strasma worked in the feeding center after trying construction-related chores.
“I really wasn’t very helpful,” she remembered.
A child herself, she also helped entertain the children of the village. “I really just kind of played,” said Strasma.
The first visit did make an impression on the young girl. In a “culture shock” experience, she noticed immediately the gap in what Americans have and Nicaraguans do not.
“It was really eye-opening. We were working on getting people out of the garbage dump,” said Strasma. “It really impacted me a lot.”
Clean water a priority
According to Amigos for Christ, most children in Nicaragua don’t finish the sixth grade. Skin diseases, parasites and respiratory diseases are rampant. This early experience helps Strasma even today to try to do things “for God and his glory.”
Each time she made the trips she was able to be more helpful, from washing dishes and counting shovels to logistics and planning.
Eventually, she helped with health education programs, including lice control. The programs include teaching families about proper hygiene and sanitation or talking about “why you shouldn’t have an open fire in your house,” said Strasma.
Amigos for Christ has a clean air kitchens project to install smokeless stoves in cooking areas. Many Nicaraguans cook with wood-burning pits inside their homes, which can lead to respiratory infections, including pneumonia.
In 2016, Amigos for Christ provided 22 new clean kitchens to rural families.
Helping families have access to clean water is a primary goal of Amigos for Christ. Strasma shared that storing water in barrels has always been a practice in that culture, and a difficult one to correct.
In 2016, Amigos volunteers connected 121 homes to clean water sources and constructed 41 bathrooms.
Johnson and Olney also both made numerous trips to the impoverished country through Amigos for Christ.
“Rachel and I have actually known each other since birth” and have lived “parallel lives,” said Strasma.
Olney was ahead of Strasma in school, and they met at Prince of Peace Church.
“Alex has been such a great mentor,” she added.
Strasma’s work with health education in Nicaragua prompted her to begin thinking of a career in medicine.
“I knew after my first trip there I wanted to serve. I wanted one-on-one interaction,” she said.
Researching kidney disease
After graduating from Georgia Tech, Strasma went on to attend the Medical College of Georgia. During the May hooding ceremony, she not only earned her medical degree but also a special award.
She was named recipient of the U.S. Public Health Service’s 2017 Excellence in Public Health Award. The USPHS created the award to inspire medical students to commit to public health and become leaders in the field. She is the first MCG student to receive the award.
Each year, every U.S. medical school is able to nominate one student who has worked hard to increase awareness about health care and put the knowledge into action. In addition to her work in Nicaragua, Strasma volunteered at clinics that help the underserved and uninsured in Augusta.
“There are individuals like (Anna), who not only recognize the importance of leadership to herself, but also to her classmates, and thus are strongly motivated to contribute to the well-being of all her classmates as a team leader and team player,” Dr. Greer Falls, associate professor of pathology and associate dean, wrote in a nomination letter.
As an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Strasma also served as the homeless ministry coordinator at the Tech Catholic Center.
As a public health intern, she returned to Nicaragua to develop and facilitate interactive programs on pulmonary and kidney diseases, water hygiene, parasitic infections and nutrition, distributed health supplies and performed blood pressure screenings.
Last fall, Strasma also begin working on research related to chronic kidney disease in Nicaraguan men. The disease is called Mesoamerican nephropathy.
According to Amigos for Christ, kidney disease kills more people each year in Nicaragua than in any other nation.
Strasma learned about an emergence of kidney disease in men, who are typically the breadwinners of their families and work cutting sugarcane.
“It’s a mystery. It’s happening to young men working in the fields. The stats are really sad,” said Strasma.
The culprits may be chronic dehydration, exposure to chemicals or something in the diet.
“I’m already researching it,” she said. “I just love the kidneys.”
During her interview at Baylor College of Medicine, Strasma spoke about her interest in learning more about the kidney disease problem in Nicaragua. The interviewer told her, “We do that here.”
“I had no idea. I just fell out of my chair,” she said.
In between graduation and beginning her residency at Baylor, then Anna Sulimirski found time to marry fiancé Sean Strasma May 27.
Sean, a high school youth minister, has also been to Nicaragua with Amigos for Christ to dig water trenches. They were married at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Augusta.
In lieu of gifts, the couple encouraged wedding guests to give to Amigos for Christ.
For Strasma, Amigos for Christ has been a motivating force in becoming a physician. As a couple they plan to continue service in Nicaragua.
“So the goal has always been to live there,” said Strasma. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence I went down there at such a young age.”