In a Town Far, Far Away…

by Danielle Bohonos

Thursday was not the most exciting day at Group 1’s clinic site. The town we visited that day was extremely far into the mountains – I swear we must have passed about 3 or 4 towns after we turned off the main highway onto the small dirt road before we finally stopped. I was scheduled to observe the pharmacy and gynecology stations, so after setting up in the school’s field, I took one of four seats set up behind a table full of medications, and waited for our first patients to wander up.

Pharmacy seemed like an easy job. However, I am sure that in my head I am simplifying the tasks way too much – I’m sure there is more to a pharmacist’s job than just reading the prescription off the paper and counting the correct amount of milligrams of medication. What I did take away from this station, in conjunction with my time spent with Omar the doctor, was a greater understanding of what certain medications achieve. After observing Omar, I had learned certain medications which were commonly prescribed for stomach pain, the neutralization of stomach acid, parasites, and general aches and pains; I could then match a symptom or problem in my mind with the correct medication in the pharmacy. While I didn’t find this station to be the most exciting, I understand the importance of having a knowledgeable person providing this service to a community.

Finally, I switched to the Gynecology station. I had been waiting for this station for the entirety of the clinic, largely because I entered the week thinking that if I were to pursue a career in medicine I might enjoy working in Obstetrics and Gynecology. At shift change, I headed to the obstetrics location only to be told there weren’t enough people at the clinic so we would be closing early. Not quite the experience that I had wanted, but it is understandable. The majority of the villagers leave their homes by 6 am to work in the fields, and as Alberto (our supervisor) explained to us, certain villages may not take advantage of the medical care the first time we come. However, next time a clinic visits the area, we hope more people in the community will recognize it and utilize this great opportunity.

Teaching Toothbrushing

The sheer quantity of children in these communities astounds me everyday. Although, I shouldn’t really have expected the opposite as the parents generally spend their day working in the fields to meet the daily demands of life. Because of this, the toothbrushing station was always extremely full of kids who wanted to learn to brush their teeth and get treated with fluoride.

There were at least thirty kids running around a table in the kindergarten we’d set up our clinic in, looking for a toothbrush. Once served with toothpaste, they began to brush; when their mouths were full, they eagerly searched for the spit bucket to relieve their mouths of the toothpaste foam and began to brush again. The fluoride wasn’t the kids’ favorite, but when I looked into some of their mouths and saw the blackened and degrading teeth, it was evident to me how necessary flouride is for a child who might not have permanent access to toothbrushing supplies.

Aside from the kids and their toothbrushing, it was amazing how exciting a digital camera was to the young kids; after taking a photo the best part for them was viewing themselves on the small screen afterwards.

My second station was shadowing a doctor named Omar. He spoke very little English; fortunately for me, he was very determined in explaining each patient’s issues so that we could understand and appreciate what he was doing during the examination. I had one of the most memorable moments of my clinic experience when I was at Omar’s station. During a lull between patients, I attempted to ask Omar about his day-to-day work outside of clinics.  He responded by saying that his work and especially his interactions with his patients are incredibly beautiful. He did not simply remark upon medicine, but more so how he loved learning about his patients, their life, their family, their work; for him it is not just about money or science, but about the people he provides care for.

How to Communicate

by Tiphaine Monroe

It got off to a bumpy start, but day two was definitely my most memorable. We all clambered into the bus at 7 and were off. The driver warned us that it would be a long ride, about an hour and a half full of twists and turns up steep mountains. The terrain was so difficult that on three separate occasions, we all had to get off the bus so that the driver could maneuver out of a ditch.
Once we arrived, we were greeted by a wonderful community. All the students were gathered in a courtyard to sing us a welcome song. Then the school’s principal gave us a moving speech about how little help their community had received before MEDLIFE and how he hoped that we as students and volunteers would never forget the plight of the poor.

My station that morning was vitals. I’ll admit that I was nervous at first. Although I studied Spanish throughout high school, it had been two years since I had spoken a word and my transition back into the language was shaky at best. For good measure, I wrote down the words ‘parese’ (step over here) and ‘saquese’ (remove) on my hand in case I forgot them for the hundredth time. That’s definitely a strategy I would recommend.

Vitals turned out to be my favorite experience. Our job was to greet the patients and get their height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure so that they were prepared to see a doctor. We had to be as quick and efficient as possible while still maintaining an atmosphere of caring and warmth. I loved all the hands-on experience with patients, asking all the kids what their names were, convincing them that the thermometer should stay under their tongues, and listening to them squeal with delight when they learned how to say ‘hello’ for the first time. One of the most challenging moments we had was trying to convince an 86-year-old, partially-deaf woman who spoke only Quechua to let us put pressure cuff on her arm – no simple task.

We switched after lunch, and I was assigned to the toothbrushing station. I loved handing out the tiger-themed brushes to all the kids and struggling to explain to them what fluoride was for. Once all the serious cleaning business was over, we still had time to talk to and get to know the kids. They told me about their school and the sports they like, when their birthdays were, and how many siblings they had. They tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me how to say hello in Quechua. Most of all, they were interested in knowing when we would come again and how long we would stay

All of the kids were shy at first, but once I pulled out my notebook and asked them if they wanted to draw, all we saw were smiles. I now have several lovely pages covered in houses and llamas and flowers. My camera was also a big hit. Every time I took a portrait, they would race towards me so I could show it to them. I eventually taught a couple of the boys how to take a picture themselves and they immediately became snap-happy. They made a game out of chasing around the shy girls to get them in a picture. Before we left, the community thanked us and gave us boiled potatoes with sauces.

How to Build a Bathroom

by Danielle Bohonos

Besides providing Peruvian communities with medical care, one of the goals of the MEDLIFE organization (as we have learned during our daily meetings) is the development of the communities we serve. This brigade we have committed to building a bathroom for a school in one of the local towns outside of Cusco. Each day, a small group of volunteers has spent their day at the school wheeling sand and dirt up hills, digging holes, and mixing cement. Tuesday was my turn to visit the project.

Our main duties were to shovel a sand and rock mixture from a large pile at the base of the hill the school was on and then wheel that mixture up the hill to the entrance of the school. From their we made an assembly line and passed the mixture down to the actual location of the future bathroom (just outside the classroom) in buckets.

After what seemed like a hundred passes of the bucket, we were told we would have a break. Fortunately for us, and our hungry bellies, the teachers and adults of the school had cooked potatoes that they had grown in the town and served them to us with a green sauce filled with garlic, herbs, and more. The combination was delicious, and I can honestly say was one of the best potatoes I have ever had in my life! During our potato feast, the kids of the school were also eating lunch – a mixture of beans and rice.

As we finished the meal, we contemplated the rest of the assembly line work we had ahead of us – only to be told that we would now be heading to a farm to help plant corn! When we arrived the farmers were eating lunch, so our visit was limited to multiple death-defying pictures posing with bulls that were suggested by Carlos (the head of Peruvian Brigade prep if I understand correctly). Interestingly enough we were allowed to work with the bulls in tilling the soil for the crops; we followed behind a pair of bulls as they dragged a large wooden spike into the soil.

Finally, we finished the day wandering down an old Incan path, where many of us found chunks of pottery and small “treasures”.

How to Get a Tooth Pulled in Cusco

by Danielle Bohonos

6 am is quite the wake up for a group of travel weary MEDLIFE volunteers, as most were still acclimating to the extreme elevation of Cusco, Peru.  Copious mugs of coca tea were just what the doctor ordered. Due to the large size of the Cusco Brigade, our body of volunteers was split in two, allowing us to visit multiple communities in one day. Group 1 headed into the mountains outside of Cusco into a small community essentially made of mud-brick houses, fields, crops, and a school – or at least that is what it appeared to be. We set up the clinic at the nicest building in the community – the school. As we carried boxes of medical supplies and gear into the school walls, we were quickly surrounded by ooo-ing and aww-ing school children who seemed to just appear from cracks in the walls!

Vitals and Dentistry were the two stations I was charged with for the day. Vitals, which includes taking the patients temperature, height, weight, and blood pressure, was quite the pressure-loaded event for a Spanish-deficient volunteer like myself. After learning the phrase for “stand here,” I was able to successfully measure each patient with relatively little difficulty – thank goodness our supervisor Alberto took pity on me enough to phonetically teach me the phrase! Vitals, despite being relatively repetitive, was one of the most exciting stations to be at because we were lucky enough to interact with everyone who entered the clinic, whereas others only saw patients with specific problems.

The dentist, I understand now, is one of the most incredibly important services that MEDLIFE can offer these communities; with a lack of money and the urgency of simply completing a family’s daily tasks, teeth cleaning and the supplies needed for this get forgotten. Almost every child who entered the facility had rotten teeth that were black to the core, or teeth that had grown in to the wrong spot. The dentist explained to us during her examinations that these kids cant afford to pay for braces or dental work in general; the majority of the children all needed these teeth pulled or filled . One remarkable nine year old girl sat in the dentist’s chair and was told she needed an infected tooth pulled.  She agreed to it and didn’t whimper at all as the dentist numbed her mouth and then extracted the tooth. She was the only child who agreed to take the care the dentist offered her.

Overall, the first day of clinics was extremely eye opening, and it is already quite evident what great work that MEDLIFE does for these communities.

*Pictures to come!*

How to Start an Adventure: Machu Picchu

Tourists travel to Cusco, Peru throughout the year to experience the astounding history, culture, and environment that this city has to offer. However, over the course of the next 11 days, some MEDLIFE McGill students will have the opportunity to not only travel to Peru, but to give back to this community during the MEDLIFE Cusco Brigade this month.
by Danielle Bohonos

Six of us arrived in Peru early, braving the threat of altitude sickness, mosquito bites, and extremely sore muscles on the 5 day Salkantay Trek to the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu. The trek took us through what seemed like every possible terrain from rocky mountainsides to blazing hot jungles culminating in what I’m sure each of us would regard as one of the most memorable weeks of our lives.

The trek began with breakfast in the small town of Mollepata Peru with our guide Freddy, who we quickly concluded must have had a different understanding of time, because every “20 minutes more” was guaranteed to be longer than 20 minutes. This proved to be the hardest day of the trek, as after lunch we were forced to climb nearly 3 hours in frigid wind to the first camp site; at over 4000 meters elevation that made for a bone-chilling first nights sleep! However, the lengthy climb paid off the following morning when we reached the peak of the Apachata Pass at nearly 4600 meters high! There, our guide instructed us in making a rock pillar offering to the mountain and showed us how to use coco leaves, make a wish, and “flow” to the mountain. From that point on, it was downhill into the jungle, to warmer temperatures and smack into the capital of mosquito central!

If the second day’s downhill terrain wasn’t nice enough, the hot springs we visited on our third day was definitely a relief for our sore muscles. The fourth day ended our seemingly non-stop walking through the jungles of Peru and ended at the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the Machu Picchu Mountain. After a night on the town and a sweet sleep at a hostel, we rode the bus to Machu Picchu on the fifth day where we feasted our eyes upon the incredible engineering, history, and beauty that is Machu Picchu. Freddy guided us around the city, explaining the significance of the Temple of the Sun, the famous Incan stonework, and more. A few hundred pictures later, we took our leave of the ancient city descending from the mountains and headed back to Cusco anticipating relaxation, sleep and the MEDLIFE Clinics to come.