Punto Cero Clouds and the Final Clinic Day.

Final Clinic Day! –  Punto Cero.

by Kate Sheridan

Today, I volunteered for the dreaded gynecology station, and I have to say, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would and I felt way less awkward than I thought I would.  Essentially, students on gynecology watch as the doctor takes histories, does pap smears, and examines pregnant women.

My very favorite part of gyno was, without doubt, the pregnant women. They all looked happy and all of them were healthy, thankfully. One was even probably carrying twins! I say probably because the clinic lacks ultrasound equipment, and the twins were “diagnosed” by palpitation only. While the gynecologist was pretty sure that the woman in question was carrying twins, she admitted it can be difficult to distinguish a head from a backside or another body part entirely, so the second head she felt could be a part of one baby.

My least favorite part of gyno was pap smears. Most women seemed to be fine with one female student in the room, but I couldn’t help but think of the physical discomfort they must be in – the speculum was unwarned and unlubricated, unlike what many North American women may be used to.  However, there was a significant number of women who elected against receiving a pap smear, for their own reasons, even after hearing about what it can do (For those of you who don’t know – the main thing people think of when they hear “pap smear” is cervical cancer, but there are other conditions that can be diagnosed with a pap smear.) My duty was to hand the doctor instruments and stabilize the light used. We did 5 or 6 pap smears in total, and I rotated in with 2 other girls, so I don’t know if I would have become more comfortable with the procedure and how I could have best assisted if there had been more opportunities.

Right in the middle were the histories. It was mostly the same basic questions everyone gets asked when they see a doctor, but I was particularly fascinated when the doctor asked certain questions: “cuantos hijos tiene? Muerto? Aborto?” My friend Vanessa asked a few clarifying questions after one physical and we had our translation: “How many kids do you have? How many have died? How many miscarriages?”

I thought about the stories represented by the numbers. What did these women feel when they had miscarriages? (The doctor used aborto to mean spontaneous abortions – induced abortions are illegal in Ecuador .) Were they devastated, relieved that there would not be yet another mouth to feed after all, a combination of both, or something else entirely? I suspect the base emotion must be something similar to what North American women feel when they miscarry; while there may be differences caused by what are very different circumstances, I feel like the loss is felt in similar ways too.

If this brigade taught me anything, it is both that I was incredibly privileged to be born into a North American family with access to consistent medical care and that I am not all that different from the people we see at the clinic anyways. The people we saw at the clinic worked hard, were deeply tied to a community, and experienced the same emotions. They may not have the same emotional triggers – I would never say that. But it goes back to the miscarriage thing I wrote about. Everyone feels loss, like when a woman miscarries; everyone feels joy, like when a new baby is born healthy and perfect. Doesn’t matter where it happens.

This clinic has been a wonderful experience for me overall. While I’d need to save up some airfare money, I would absolutely do it again.  I can’t believe it is already over and the first of my flights to send me back to the Great White North takes off in 24 hours.

THANKS! for reading the blog from this brigade, and my tweets from the ground. (If you haven’t been, check it out: @MEDLIFEMcGill! More pictures!) I hope we’ve given a little bit of insight into what the clinics are like and the people who you might meet if you go on one!

And PLEASE! Comment and give us feedback! So we can improve the blog and give you guys everything you ask for!


¡High! in the Mountains of Catequilla-Chambo.

DAY 6 –  ¡High! in the Mountains of Catequilla-Chambo.

by Ji Hyun Yoon

Today the group set off to Catequilla-Chambo, a region located at the lower part of a mountain. The village was much more small in size and population compared to the ones previously visited which were located higher up in the mountains.

I worked at the dental station and assisted Tanya, the dentist, in treating over 30 people. The tasks I was responsible for included sterilizing the used tools with alcohol, handing the appropriate tools and supplies to Tanya, and comforting the patients during the treatment. It was a good opportunity for me to learn the names of the dental tools in Spanish and what they were used for. For example, carpul was used to inject the anesthetic into the gum, while gutaperchero was used to spread the cavity sealant on the tooth. Another tool named explorador was used for scraping out the plaques in between the teeth. Patients were treated with fluoride in prior to protect their teeth, where most of them were children who had rotten or wobbly tooth. For most of the times, cavity sealant was used to treat a rotten tooth but in severe cases the tooth had to be plucked out. There was one case in which an eight-year-old girl had broken roots and a few projecting tooth in wrong positions. Due to long periods of negligence the pus in her gum had decayed the gum so much that it could not absorb the anesthetic. It was tough for her to tolerate the pain of plucking the tooth out; all I could do was hold her hands. There was another woman who had dental problems that gave discomfort in everyday life that was impossible to solve since they were left that way for such a long time. Earlier treatments would not have led to such situations. Seeing those people in pain due to inaccessibility to simple treatments made my mind heavy and made me once again appreciate the benefit of the available health care that we have back home.

Taking part in MEDLIFE brigade provided me with so many valuable experiences. Being able to work right beside professional doctors and dentists and assisting them is not a common experience that one can get at our age; it is a chance for me to encounter various aspects of medicine and move one step further toward my dreams. In addition, although we are here to help these people, I feel that I am the one who is learning and gaining from them as days go on. I could sense that speaking different languages is not a problem at all in conveying feelings of gratitude and sincerity towards each other.


A Little bit of French in the Clouds!

DAY 5 –  Un peu de Français dans les Nuages.

by François Alexandre Toupin

Nous avions 2h de route à faire et j’ai dormi la plupart du temps mais quand je me suis réveillé nous étions dans un nuage!! Nous étions tellement haut que nous avons passé la journée complète dans un nuage c’était spécial. Une fois installé j’ai commencé à parler aux jeunes en attendant les premiers patients. Ils étaient très gentils et il y en a même un, Francisco, qui parlait anglais un petit peu. Il avait 12 ans et quand je lui ai demandé s’il jouait au futbol  il m’a invité à aller jouer avec eux! Leur terrain n’a pas de gazon et il est délimité par des poteaux de bois aux quatre coins. Les buts sont fait en bois eux aussi et ils n’ont pas de filets. J’ai joué pendent une bonne demi-heure avec une 15aine d’enfants c’était tellement le fun. Ils étaient impressionnant pour des jeunes de 10-13 ans! Le terrain était en terre et vu qu’il avait plu on jouait pratiquement dans la boue. J’ai planter solide en couvrant mon homme et je suis plein de terre en ce moment même si Francisco m’a amener me laver. L’altitude s’est fait sentir à force de courir d’un bout à l’autre du terrain, les enfants n’arrêtaient pas de me demander pourquoi j’étais si fatigué! Quand je n’en pouvais plus je leur ai dit que je reviendrais quand j’aurais une pause mais nous avons été tellement occupés que je n’ai pas pu retourner jouer avec eux.

On m’a assigné à la station médecine. C’était très intéressant. La médecin ne parlait qu’espagnol alors j’ai pratiqué toute la journée à l’écouter et à parler avec elle. Le deux personnes avec qui j’étais ne parlaient pas un mot d’espagnol alors j’ai traduit pour eux ce qui m’a aider à pratiquer. J’ai vu une petite fille de 10 ans avec des cataractes et il y avait une multitude de personnes avec des parasites dans le ventre. La médecin nous laissait ausculter tout les patients et elle nous a montrer comment examiner la gorge et les oreilles. Il y avait une petite fille, Josefin, qui avait une grosse infection à l’oreille et c’était rempli de pus. On a vu une petite fille qui avait une déficience mentale et motrice et elle doit se faire suivre par un médecin en ville régulièrement. Certaines personnes avaient des problèmes avec leur yeux liés au manque de protection oculaire qui faisait en sorte qu’ils accumulaient de la terre dans leur yeux. Finalement on a eu une patiente qui avait de l’ascite dans le ventre. Elle était très pâle et quand on examinait ses yeux on voyait que l’intérieur de sa paupière était blanc ce qui indique qu’elle est anémique. La médecin nous a dit qu’elle pensait que c’était un cancer et elle l’a référé à des spécialistes en ville pour faire plus de tests.

En sortant j’ai revu mes amis avec qui j’avais joué au futbol et je me suis excusé de ne pas être revenu. On a pris une photo ensemble et ils ont couru derrière l’autobus quand on partait.

Nous sommes allés souper dans un restaurant américain. J’ai mangé un burger au Chili c’était très bon. Après le souper nous sommes allés prendre quelques bières au bar Karaoke en face avec la plupart des voyageurs et nous avons rempli la place d’ambiance avec nos talents de chanteurs.



¡TIMBERRR! at Pull San Pedro

DAY 4 –  Pull San Pedro.

by Vanessa Sunahara

Today, I was placed on project duty. It consists of helping the locals of Pull San Pedro build a bathroom for their school. Surprisingly enough, we ended helping in other ways. Emily, Esther, Francois, Kate, Yang, Sonja and I were dropped off at Pull San Pedro while the rest of the MEDLIFE brigade moved onto the next village to set up the clinic.  At first, we stood in the courtyard waiting for instructions and watching the village men wrestle down a few trees. The children were hiding in the entrance ways, giggling at us gringos. (Their teachers realized what a attraction we were for the kids and eventually let them come out and meet all of us.) We felt like parents at a Justin Bieber concert, taller than most and not completely sure what we are there for.

After a few minutes, the women of the village started working on expanding the courtyard, using hoes and shovels to break the old field. It was then, through much miming, we managed to ask if we could help. I’m not sure if it was because they actually needed the extra hands, or because they just wanted to see strange foreigners have a go at manual labor, but they accepted our offer.  I have the utmost respect for the villagers that we worked along with. Their tools were primitive, but had a certain simplicity to them. All the women worked in traditional Ecuadorian clothing (long skirts, a hat, several layers of sweaters and rain boots). I even saw one working the entire day with an infant strapped to her back. The general mood of the group was relaxed. There was no rush to finish, yet there were no breaks in the workflow.

The first half of the day consisted of breaking down concrete, shoveling, making inappropriate hoe jokes and wheel-barrowing tons of dirt and rocks. These were unlikely tasks for a party of out of shape university students whose most recent idea of heavy lifting meant carrying a biology textbook to class and doing cardio meant climbing up to the fifth floor of the library. After a few hours, we heard the “gringo alarm” (a loud siren usually used to signal the start of the clinic), and the teachers invited us into their lounge and treated us to a local snack. It consisted of bread, boiled eggs and an amazing drink (soy, grains and many other nutritious ingredients). Yang was kind enough to teach us the fastest way to eat a boiled egg (ask him, if you´re interested).  After our snack, we went back to work.

The men were moving the remnants of the pine trees that were cut down earlier. We jumped right in to help; pine sap ended up everywhere. Once that was done, we moved onto extracting stones from a pile of dirt and subsequently used them as foundation for the soon to be larger courtyard.  By 1300, the bus arrived to pick us up. We were saddened that we were unable to cover the entire courtyard in stone, but still satisfied by the amount of work accomplished during the course of the day. While the day was rewarding, I am very excited to head back to the clinic tomorrow, and more excited to see the new bathroom after the week is done.



Aji solves everything, especially soy allergies.
A note from Yang: We helped pull down a large tree (just so you know).


First Clinic Day in San Pedro Guamote

DAY 3 – 1st Clinic, San Pedro Guamote.

by Sunita Kheterpal

When I awoke this morning, it was quite cloudy.  Our room, which I share with another McGill student, Shruti, has a balcony (I think one of the only rooms with this beautiful balcony).  It overlooks the road in front and we wake up to taxis honking (but it’s okay because you have to wake up early anyways).  The train station is right across our room (no trains run because this part of the track is broken).  The showers are hot (don’t worry about running water).  I made sure that after yesterday’s piercing cold shower, none of us had to go through that again!  The only problem is that I’m not sure how to get the cold water back in…I’ll figure it out eventually.

The breakfast venue is across the street and the Señor and Señora who own the restaurant are extremely welcoming. Señora is a doting mother who tells us to drink the leche (hot milk).  She often sings “leche, leche, leche” and dances with the steaming hot milk in one hand and tea in the other.  She reminds me of my mom who constantly tells me to drink milk to prevent my bones from cracking all the time.  On the bright side the milk is very different from Canadian and American milk but in a good way.  The Señora and Señor make amazing juice (blackberry which you would never think was blackberry and juice from special Ecuadorian tomatoes which tastes like mango/peach/orange).  Also, don’t worry the couple is extremely accommodating for those vegetarians out there!

We boarded the bus at 7 am and drove for 1.5 hr to our destination, San Pedro Guamote.  It is a little town that lies high in the Andes Mountains.  It is one of the poorest towns in all of Ecuador.  In the bus, we were split into groups (vitals, education, medicine, dentistry, gynecology, pharmacy and our week’s project to build a baño for this community).

  1. I was in a group of five, taking vital signs.
  2. Following patient inscription our group measured height, weight, blood pressure, and temperature.  I was mostly taking blood pressure and ensuring that everybody (patients and volunteers) were okay.
  3. Once the vitals were “terminado”, I told the patients to “sigueme por favor a la carpa educacion”.

I learned Español in Grade 9 (quite a long time ago), and since then have never used any Spanish.  This was the first time in a foreign country that I actually tested out this new language.  I grew up in Montreal and I find that Español is very similar to French.  You can add an “o, a, or e” at the end of a French word and it becomes Español. It turns out that I had the phrases down but when I pronounced them, they weren’t quite the same.  Instead of saying “sit here”, I said “feel here”.  It was amusing because the patients would laugh at us, but some of them helped me pronounce the sentences or corrected my grammar.

There were many young mothers, so I was also holding the little babies (one was a couple of days old and another was a few months old).  The children were extremely well behaved, quiet, but curious.  They intently watched us foreigners roll in on our touristy bus and set up our tents.  Then, when we tried to talk to them, they would smile, look away shyly, and finally run away.  When they realized we were here to help them, I think they warmed up to us.  I actually started getting responses when I asked “coma te llamas”!  We did not have many patients (about 50) and thus we ended early.  Most of the patients were women and children.

The poverty here is a different type of poverty than I have ever experienced before.  I don’t know why but since the day that I have arrived in Ecuador, I constantly compare Ecuador to India.  I went to India in 1999 around the state of Gujarat.  As soon as I walked out of the airport in Quito, the first thing I said was that it smelled like India.  There is this smokey scent here in the evenings and early mornings.  The buses are very similar and so are the streets.  When I was in India we were mostly in an agricultural region where cows, donkeys and sheep walked the streets freely.  In San Pedro it was the same feeling.  Even the weather is the same- chilly in the mornings/evenings and warm in the afternoons.  I don’t normally sunburn, but I definitely got a little one on my face yesterday and today.  So, even if you think you are not going to burn, bring the sunscreen.  Trust me, you’ll need it because the sun is a lot stronger here than where you live.  The one difference I have noted between India and Ecuador is the poverty level.  In India, everywhere you looked in the shopping areas, you saw people without arms or legs, or children simply begging for money.  In San Pedro, it is a very different poverty because all of the people are subsistence farmers but none that I have seen have begged for money.  I think that the reason for their extreme poverty level is their isolation in these mountainous regions.  They do not have access to basic services/needs which other parts of the world do.  You will notice here that everything is shared, communal.  The community of San Pedro also prepared a “muchas gracias” (thank you) meal for the MEDVIDA crew.

I have gotten over my fear of dogs here. The dogs here don’t bark, bite or run after you.  Today they were circulating around me and I didn’t even notice them.  It is kind of the opposite here because the dogs are either scared of us and run away or they don’t care that we’re around.  I think we have an understanding, a mutual agreement.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped in a little place with a lake and some tourist shops.  It was a beautiful scene/picture spot.  We returned to the hotel at 4 pm, changed our clothes, freshened up and headed out to the ciudad of Riobamba for some tourist shopping.  I bought a colorful hammock, blue bag, new bracelets made of Ecuadorian beads and shells.  We were also on a mission to find some piña (pineapple) for a fellow MEDVIDA from Colorado.  On the way I realized that all of the mess from the New Year’s celebrations had been cleaned up while we were gone.  The city looked as good as new! For dinner we went to our first Ecuadorian restaurant.  It was great!  I don’t know exactly how to describe and put into words the people here, other than that they are extremely giving, welcoming and sweet.

I think this post has been quite long and I know that I have missed out on many great moments of the day.  My first real day on site has been incredibly rewarding, and I know that what we are doing here is needed and well appreciated.  I feel like I belong and I know you will too!


¡Hola! from Ecuador!

DAY 1 & 2 – Riobamba, Ecuador.

Seeing as that is essentially the extent of my Spanish when I arrived in Quito yesterday night, I was a little apprehensive about how I was going to survive. While I’m still a little concerned, I feel more confident now that I know more about how the clinic is going to work. I won’t go into detail now to leave some room for everyone else to blog, but I don’t think my lack of detailed Spanish language skills will be extremely detrimental to my experience.

I’m so thrilled to be here; just getting to Riobamba was an adventure. After arriving at the Quito airport after 3 different flights and 12 hours, I rode with the rest of the brigade on a bus for another 4 until arriving at our hotel. Before we could even get on the bus, though, there was still one flight to wait for after mine arrived.  A bunch of people who had already landed decided that we would pass the time by finding food. We all wandered out into the teeming streets of Quito on New Year’s Eve and found the best (fast and cheap) meal that we could. This turned out to be chicken on a stick topped by a mouthwatering potato for me; others got pork or sausage instead of chicken.  We ate while we walked back to the airport to meet the last flight and get on our bus. About halfway through our bus trip, the clock hit midnight. 2011 was gone, and we all got off the bus to toast and eat grapes (12 – one wish for each month in the new year.) Another new New Year’s tradition for me, in addition to the grapes, was the burning of dummies; there were fires everywhere with people grouped around them, burning the bad of the old year away. Ecuadorians seem to celebrate New Year’s exuberantly. I like it.

We leave for our first clinic day tomorrow, and while I’m so excited, I really enjoyed exploring Riobamba and a neighboring city called Guano during our non-clinic day today. The landscape in both places was absolutely beautiful and not something I am used to seeing in Montreal or where I grew up – there are some pictures of this gorgeous place in our photo album, because a picture is worth a thousand words. There are houses and farms creeping up on endless mountains, and if you find the right spots, you can see entire cities at your feet. The depth and variety of the colors are fantastic, too. I feel kind of bland here next to these houses and lights, all lit up by sun on a blue sky. Even our sunburns are a very rich, vivid red.

If you are reading this and thinking about going on a brigade, I have some words of advice. First, definitely do. I can tell this is going to be an unforgettable week. Second, bring the strongest sunscreen you can find; we’re at the equator and the sun is unforgiving; we all started to get a little crispy around noon, and there is always a spot you neglect to apply sunscreen to. For me, it was my ears. Third: bring sturdy walking shoes, because you don’t want to miss seeing something incredible because your feet hurt.  And there is so much to see.

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See you tomorrow,