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Clinic dorm honoring Columbus woman’s legacy touches many

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An artist's rendering of a planned roof on Abby's House. The house and proposed roof were designed by Columbus architect Nolan Bingham.
An artist's rendering of a planned roof on Abby's House. The house and proposed roof were designed by Columbus architect Nolan Bingham. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Abby's House, a dorm for medical students in Belize, was named after Abigail Brinkman, a Columbus native who died in a 2005 diving accident there. 
Abby's House, a dorm for medical students in Belize, was named after Abigail Brinkman, a Columbus native who died in a 2005 diving accident there. SUBMITTED PHOTO

While in medical school, Columbus native Jennifer Gillis spent a month in southern Belize to help the impoverished population with basic medical care.

Without fancy gadgets and high-tech equipment, Gillis and other students helped doctors from Hillside Health Care Center treat the native population, free of charge, for anything from high blood pressure to broken bones and potentially deadly illnesses.

The line of people waiting to be seen at the three-bed clinic usually would form early in the morning and snake onto the clinic’s lawn, said Gillis, now a third-year psychiatry resident at Wake Forest University, who stayed at the clinic in 2009.

Students and staff also frequently got on a truck and rode for hours over bumpy dirt roads to reach remote villages whose residents do not have the time or means to come to the clinic.

Raising the roof

What: Abby’s House is a dorm for medical students who do a weeks-long rotation in southern Belize.

Columbus connection: The dorm, part of the nonprofit Hillside Health Care Clinic, was named after Abigail Brinkman, a Columbus medical student who died in Belize in a diving accident.

Impact: Since the dorm opened in 2008, the clinic has welcomed 150 students annually, compared with 60 before, and has treated about 9,000 patients per year, about twice as many as before.

Raising more funds: Because of the tropical climate and heavy rainfall, Abigail’s parents, Janet and Roger Brinkman, are raising funds to put a sloped roof on the 6,000-square-foot dorm.

Projected cost: $50,000.

Information: or Roger Brinkman at 342-9205.

Without Hillside Health Care, a faith-based nonprofit based in Milwaukee, most of the patients would go without medical care, Gillis said.

And some, she said, would die.

Columbus connection

Gillis and the other students stayed in Abby’s House, a 6,000 square-foot dorm that houses up to 16 students at a time next to the clinic. The dorm is named after Abigail Brinkman, a Columbus native who died in 2005 in a diving accident in Belize. Brinkman, who was 28 at the time, had been studying at Indiana University to become a doctor. Her parents, Jan and Roger Brinkman, launched a fundraising effort to build the $200,000 dormitory.

Dr. Sue Leib, a pediatrician at Einstein Medical School in Philadelphia, said Abby’s House allows the clinic to host 150 students per year, up from 60 before the dorm. Leib attended a recent Columbus Rotary Club meeting to report on the clinic’s progress.

The clinic also sees about 9,000 patients per year now, more than double the number it saw before Abby’s House, Leib said.

Dr. David Porter, of Sandcrest Family Medicine in Columbus, who has twice spent a week at the clinic to help patients and the medical students, said the patients receive needed care, and the medical students gain experience, especially in diagnosing medical problems.

You have to be a better diagnostician when you don’t have X-rays and other high-tech equipment, Porter said.

Gillis said she gained a greater appreciation for things that most people in the U.S. take for granted. For example, water in Belize is frequently contaminated and has to be boiled or sanitized before it can be consumed, she said. Gillis had to avoid accidentally swallowing water in the shower. She brushed her teeth with bottled water.

Many of the children see a toothbrush for the first time when they receive one from the clinic.

Despite their poverty, Gillis said, the children were very happy, and the people in general were grateful and kind.

She said she enjoyed her experience and learned a lot about using inexpensive — but effective — medications and procedures.

Jan Brinkman, a broker associate with Century 21 Breeden Realtors, said an added benefit of the larger dorm is that more medical students get to know each other. Before the dorm was built, groups of about three or four students each were scattered, so students mostly knew the ones in their group. The dorm aids in camaraderie and allows students in different disciplines — and countries — to discuss treatment plans, she said.

“We get notes from students who say it’s an incredible experience with a comfortable bed and a hot shower,” Jan Brinkman said.

Gillis knew Abigail Brinkman from Columbus — but Gillis signed up for her medical training in Belize without realizing the dorm had a connection to Brinkman. Gillis said she realized that only after she saw a picture of Brinkman in the dorm and a plaque that told her story.

“It’s just a pretty remarkable coincidence,” she said.

Gillis also said she did not know that Brinkman had died.

She remembered Brinkman because they were about the same age and played tennis for their high schools in Columbus, and because they had a mutual friend in Columbus. Brinkman, a Columbus East graduate, was well known because of her community involvement, cheerleading and serving as an Indy 500 princess, said Gillis, a Columbus North graduate.

Brinkman received her medical degree posthumously from IU because she had passed her tests before leaving for Belize. She also received an honorary residency in pediatrics from Riley Hospital for Children, her mother said.

Getting involved

Porter got involved with Abby’s House because he had worked with Brinkman when she was a student and because he knew the Brinkman family from church. He has stayed in the clinic but also in Abby’s House and said it provides much more comfortable living quarters than the typical homes in the area, many of which have dirt floors, outhouses and no running water.

And despite high humidity and temperatures — and about 170 inches of rain per year, Abby’s House has no air conditioning.

“It would definitely get very hot,” Gillis said.

She and the other students sometimes would just lie under a fan in Abby’s House’s central room to cool off, Gillis said.

Hillside Health Care and the Brinkmans just began the second fundraising phase to add a sloping roof onto Abby’s House to address the oppressive heat.

Columbus architect Nolan Bingham, who designed the original structure and the future sloping roof, said the house did not get a sloping roof right away because the dorm initially was going to have another story. Those plans have changed, however, and the sloping roof will shade the dorm’s top and its sides, and it also will absorb some of the heat and allow for the installation of an attic fan, which further should reduce the interior temperature.

Bingham said getting the house built proved challenging because building techniques differ in Belize, and some materials just are not available.

Bingham estimates that the metal roof over the 6,000-square-foot dorm will cost more than $50,000.

Construction will start only after all of the funds have been raised, said Roger Brinkman, a social worker for Centerstone.

Brinkman and Bingham are members of the local Rotary Club, which was heavily involved in raising funds for Abby’s House.

Brinkman serves as the president of Hillside’s board of directors and travels to the clinic about once a year. He was confident that the funds would be raised.

“We’re not going to stop until it’s done,” he said.

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