Swati Patel: Hope Against All Odds

As science students, we all theoretically understand the effects of different sicknesses – such as bacterial/viral infection and cancer. As people, we are taught to recognize the signs and symptoms of the most common ones. If you have a sore throat for a couple of days along with a fever, you just walk or drive to your clinic and get antibiotics. Within the next day, you’ll be well on your way to feeling normal.
​Inagine that you didn’t know the signs for a throat infection, and just believed it was a normal cold. Imagine you didn’t notice a lump growing on your breasts. Imagine that even if you did realize there was something wrong and you knew you had to visit a doctor, you would be required you to walk kilometers away from where you live, lose a day’s pay, and practically spend an entire day just to see a doctor. If you eventually find time and manage to do all that, it is highly likely that by the time you get to the doctor, your condition has worsened; that lump on your breast is no longer just breast cancer, but has metastasized to other organs in your body…
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​This is what I saw on my MEDLIFE trip to Peru. During our first tour in Pamplona, we saw the harsh reality of day to day life. Through TV, most of us have become familiar with the conditions in the poor parts of various countries, and we have all heard of the difficulties they have to face. We set up fundraisers and charities to raise money and make a difference in their lives. However, most of us don’t ever truly get to see the difference we have made. Taking part in MEDLIFE’s mobile clinic allowed me not only to witness the difference I have made indirectly, but to help those who ultimately change lives.
​I went on this trip with other students. During the clinic week, we assisted doctors, dentists, gynecologists and pharmacists. We had the pleasure of educating children on how to brush their teeth and the importance of brushing your teeth. As well as health care for all, MEDLIFE also provides education on cancer, basic health care, preventive measure and STIs to adults. Due to all the donations and money raised for MEDLIFE, we were able to also provide them with the drugs they needed for free. All in all, we helped 302 patients!
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​Additionally, MEDLIFE volunteers also takes part in developmental projects. This includes building schools, bathrooms, and stairs. As I mentioned earlier, we had done a 6km hike through Pamplona on our first day. We hiked from the foot of the hills to the top. I can assure you – that was no easy task. But this is what the people of Pamplona do EVERY DAY! Because they don’t have stairs, they walk up extremely dangerous and steep dirt paths. Young children at the age of 5 or 6 have to hike everyday just to get to school. So MEDLIFE builds stairs, not just to make their lives easier, but also to prevent people from slipping and gravely injuring themselves. During our clinic week, we were able to complete a staircase in the Buena Vista community. For us, it may have just been a staircase, but for them it is one step towards a better future.
​Although there are so many more people around the world who still need help, it makes me happy to know that I was able to help change some lives forever for the better. Additionally, I have been changed for the better as well, by the people I’ve met: the friends, the doctors, the staff, and all the patients we treated. They are my inspiration and I will forever be grateful for everything they have shown me and taught me. I believe that we gave each and every one of those 302 patients and the community of Buena Vista hope for a better future. And, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, he who has hope has everything

Swati Patel is in Microbiology and Immunology.

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Final Thoughts

By Doulia Hamad

It’s Saturday. The clinics are done, the development project is finished, and we got our the final debriefing. In four days, we saw nearly 400 patients, young and old, and gave twice as many prescriptions and treatments.

Among the many striking events that coloured our week, I was particularily taken aback by the character of the people. Despite the poverty, the health problems and the harsh living conditions, bright, genuine smiles were never scarce. More than just exchanging smiles and saying “Buenos días“, I was especially pleased to be able to converse with many in my broken Spanish. I discovered that making an effort and showing a willingness to communicate in the people’s native language quickly won you encouragement and support.

My first real conversation occured on Wednesday, with an elderly lady from Ventanilla. I was assigned to the education tent, and since the day was drawing to a close and few patients were still being admitted, I had ample time to sit down and chat with the remaining patients between lessons. That day, we talked about where I was from, what I studied, and how the weather was. The topics of conversation may not have been groundbreaking, but the event felt immense to me. This woman and I had oceans between us (both figuratively and literally), yet she could understand me, and I, her!

In the subsequent day, this newfound confidence allowed me to have even more substatial conversations, comparing the Canadian and Peruvian healthcare and education systems with the OB/GYN doctor, and finding common ground with Mary Lara, the nurse in charge of educating the villagers on hygiene, disease prevention, and treatment.

With kids, there was barely any need for words. We conversed in the universal language of childhood: games and play. On Wednesday, I found a great friend in a small boy living in Ventanilla, simply by chasing around a blown-up surgical glove with him. Yesterday, I got help from a seven year old Pamplona native as I stayed behind to finish painting a MEDLIFE sign: I held the brush, and she held the pot of paint.

However, as we inaugurated the staircase we helped build in Pamplona Alta, I realized that language is a barrier only if you accept it as so – even with adults. We did not need to say a word to appreciate the artistry of the dancers who performed traditional dances honouring both earth and nature, nor did we need to understand Spanish to share the “pure joy”, as our intern Christina put it, that flooded us as we were invited to dance and laugh and dance some more. Moving to the sound of guitars and trumpets, we became a blur of pale and copper-colored skins, of long braided hairs and baseball caps, and of traditional colorful skirts and MEDLIFE t-shirts.

Giorgio, the leader of our clinic, said we should be proud of ourselves for what we did this week. I sure am. However, even if this trip will end soon, I will continue the adventure with a renewed energy. MEDLIFE advocates for sustainability in medicine, health and education: our work for these communities, both on site and from home is therefore not done yet, it is only beginning.

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On the Ground and On the Job

by Doulia Hamad

Buenas Tardes,

Today was our first day of clinic. After a quick breakfast and wishing good luck to those of us that were headed to the grueling stairs construction project, we packed our materials and headed to a district near Pamplona Alta for the day.

My first station was general medicine with Cesar, a physician who’d specialized in geriatric care. Before the patients began rolling in, Cesar took those of us assigned to his station aside and began teaching. With humour and patience, he showed us how to distinguish abnormal heart and lung sounds from those of normal beats and breaths. He also introduced us to some ailments specific to the living conditions of the villagers; he directed our attention to the signs of anemia and vitamin A deficiency (discoloured gums and mucosa and white spots on the skin, respectively). As well, we got to see first-hand many cases of tonsilitis and parasite infections, as well as an older woman afflicted with ptosis, thus causing her to have a droopping eylid on one side only.

By noon, I was getting hungry – my breakfast of bread, banana and egg was now long gone – but I didn’t want to leave Ceasar’s side. There were always more patients to ascultate, more heart sounds to hear.

Eventually (and somewhat reluctantly), I did head for lunch and to my next station, but not before taking the time to pass over the knowledge I had gathered to the friends that were coming to replace me.

In the afternoon, triage proved equally interesting, albeit a bit more challenging since we were directly interacting with patients. My Spanish is far from perfect, but I was relieved to realize that I spoke well enough to be understood clearly by the villagers, even on my first try. Keeping a big smile on my face and using even larger gestures helped, too.

You should come see for yourself! 

A Pre-Clinic Ocean Breeze

by Doulia Hamad

Buenos días!

This is now day two of our trip, and things are well, although anticipation for the days to come is building and building. Because our group is a melting pot of students coming from different parts of the USA, Puerto Rico and Canada, ther is a lot to get to know about each other, a task that we are happily completing over meals, sightseeing walks, and after-dinner games.

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Yesterday, we got a small tour of Mariflores, the district of Lima where our hotel is. As we walked around, taking picture after picture of houses, streets and anything else that may seem noteworthy to a dutiful toutist, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the friendly nature of the place. We came across a large avenue that, our MEDLIFE guide Giorgio explained, was closed every Sunday morning just to allow bikers and runners and rollerbladers to enjoy themselves. Mariflores’ beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean, as well as the food that one can enjoy while gazing into the horizon, makes it an easy place to like. Yesterday, I tasted a dish called “Causa Fashion”, which consisted of fried shrimp set daintily on top of dollops of lemon-flavoured mashed potatoes. My description may not do this dish justice, but hopefully the picture will.

Today, we are headed for a tour of Pamplona. “Be prepared to hike!” said Sunita, one of the MEDLIFE interns. After our hike, we will also find out what groups we are in for the clinics and development project. Can’t wait!

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.