Revolutionary Medicine: Anthropology in Action

Student Beth Geglia arrived at AU with professional accomplishments in human rights campaigning, crisis intervention, and language interpretation—and with a dedication to activism, particularly in Central America. She completed the AU master’s in anthropology program and is now pursuing a PhD in anthropology at AU.

Drawing on her interests and skills, including training in documentary filmmaking, Beth engages in meaningful projects with an extensive reach. Of particular note is her documentary, Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garífuna Hospital, which Beth co-directed with journalist Jesse Freeston, and first screened in 2013. After a Washington, DC, premier in early 2014, a screening also took place this past November.

The film tells the story of a community-controlled free hospital, located in the small community of Ciriboya, Colón, on Honduras’ Caribbean Coast. Built in a town without paved roads or electricity, this is the first hospital on Afro-indigenous Garífuna land. While located in a small community, the hospital serves people from the entire region. People served by this hospital have few other options for healthcare because of barriers including cost, distance, and the need to communicate in the Garífuna language.

The film does more than highlight the achievements of the community Ciriboya. As Beth says, “The film is about the struggle for healthcare as a human right—which the hospital is very explicitly a part of, and which makes the messages in the film universal and relevant.”

Revolutionary Medicine has been shown in nine countries so far, and in over a dozen US universities. It won first prize in the 2015 Futures of Visual Anthropology Conference.

And, most significantly, it has inspired action in Honduras and incited support from abroad, making an on-the-ground difference in Ciriboya. The film’s success demonstrates the potential strength of partnership between anthropologists and communities.


The Community that Took Control of Their Healthcare

Beth provided some background on the history of the Garífuna. “The history of the Garífuna people includes forced displacement and resistance, dating back to the slave trade,” she said.

Today, the Garífuna live on the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua, and also in New York, Los Angeles, and other major US cities.

“On the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, they face neglect by the state, exemplified in part by the state’s failure to establish a hospital on Garífuna land,” Beth said.

Concerned about the lack of health resources available to them, the community took action. Their self-organization and persistence have resulted in the First Garífuna Hospital, the subject of Revolutionary Medicine.

Beth began work on Revolutionary Medicine after meeting Dr. Luther Castillo, a founding doctor of the First Garífuna Hospital. In the film, the community’s story is told in the words of Castillo and other Garífuna community members.

The hospital itself, the filmmakers point out, has come to stand as a symbol of Garífuna self-determination, with the hospital offering an alternative model of healthcare as the Honduras national system grows increasingly privatized.

The hospital’s work is funded primarily by Garífuna living around the world, by US unions and solidarity groups, and by the Cuban government. The Cuban-trained medical professionals at the First Garífuna Hospital are members of the Garífuna themselves. Without access to electricity, the hospital uses solar panels to power an x-ray machine, an ultrasound, dental equipment, and a laboratory. According to hospital records, the staff has carried out more than half a million patient consultations in less than a decade—and has never charged a cent for its services.


The Film’s Impact in Honduras

Revolutionary Medicine has introduced audiences to new ideas about healthcare and has helped expand the hospital’s work.

A 2013 screening for National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) inspired medical students to partner with the professionals at the First Garífuna Hospital.

AU public anthropology Assistant Professor Adrienne Pine was engaged in teaching and field work in Honduras at the time, and she also screened the film for her nursing students, prompting 12 of her students to join the efforts of the UNAH medical students.

Working alongside the Garífuna doctors, the students carried out a study in Ciriboya on the prevalence of hemoglobin S, which can result in sickle cell anemia. The study will help medical professionals with prevention and treatment; it will also contribute to the body of knowledge about hemoglobinopathy.

With the support of UNAH, students have provided useful services for the medical professionals in Ciriboya. The students have benefited from the partnership as well, learning from the Ciriboya community’s transformative approach to community-driven medicine. Built on collaboration and solidarity visits, the relationship between the students and hospital continues today.


The Film’s Reach Outside Honduras

Revolutionary Medicine showcases the successes of one small community, and it has incited action on behalf of the First Garífuna Hospital. The screenings drive important conversations about alternative models of healthcare in the US and elsewhere.

Screenings have been held in the US with activists, medical professionals, social work students, youth, and medical students in attendance. The film was screened repeatedly as part of the political education project of Maryland’s local “Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign,” which Beth worked on in the summer of 2013 as a public anthropologist intern with United Workers. Screenings have also been held for Diaspora communities in the US, mainly in the Bronx, in partnership with New York’s Garífuna Health and Education Support Institute.

In June 2014, Revolutionary Medicine was screened in Havana, Cuba on a number of dates, where medical students also presented the preliminary results of the hemoglobin study.

Beth observes that people leave the screenings feeling inspired to act.

In 2014, Adrienne wrote an article, “Common Purpose, Common Struggle,” for National Nurses United Magazine about her work in Honduras, the successes of the hospital, and the value of Beth and Jesse’s documentary.

Adrienne argues that nurses in the US, Honduras, and across the globe are united in a fight for the health of their patients, against the forces of corporate healthcare and privatization.

Beth and Jesse’s film, she says, can serve as an educational tool and a foundation for activism, opening the minds of healthcare providers by demonstrating how an alternative, community-based system of healthcare can work effectively.


How to watch Revolutionary Medicine

You can watch the film’s trailer or purchase the film at 50% of all sales go directly to the expansion of the health project.

Photo: Still from Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garífuna Hospital



Beth Geglia has used the tools of anthropology to make a real difference with her award-winning documentary. If this work interests you, please explore the master’s in public anthropology at American University.



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