Christopher G. – Alternative Spring Break – Medicine in Argentina
About a week before I was set to depart for Argentina, the reality of my situation finally began to sink in. I was traveling to a foreign country, alone, for the first time in my life, with limited knowledge of the spoken language or culture and no familiar faces to accompany me along the way. All things considered, it made me extremely hesitant about following through with the trip. I contemplated every excuse in the book; but at the end of the day I knew that I needed to remove myself from my comfort zone and make the trip to Cordoba. After making the trip, I can say without an ounce of doubt in my heart that the people I met, experiences I had and lessons I learned, I would not trade for the world.
The morning of my departure, I left Raleigh, North Carolina, with a stomach full of butterflies and a head full of questions. Who would the other volunteers be? What would my living arrangements be like? Would I be able to even make it through customs having limited knowledge of the Spanish language? All of these questions and more were answered immediately upon my arrival in South America.
My arrival in Argentina
When I arrived in Cordoba, I was able to meet Krista and Jill, the other two volunteers who were doing the week-long Spring Break program with me. It seemed we all shared similar hesitations before leaving the States, which gave us all something to discuss and bond over. Once we all got through customs and found our Projects Abroad contact, we were driven to our host house where we were greeted with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek from our host mother.
My host family
Never have I ever experienced people so welcoming of strangers into their home as the Argentine people. Laura, our host mother, made sure that we had everything we needed. With her limited knowledge of English, and my limited knowledge of Spanish, we worked together to overcome the language barrier that was lingering on that first day; we were able to communicate with one another quite effectively by the second day though.
My medical placement
After our Projects Abroad contact gave us an introduction into the area we were in and our week ahead, we were free to explore the city of Cordoba and told where to report to on the next day which is when our Medical Project would officially begin. Never was there ever a question of where or what we were supposed to be doing at a certain time - the staff at Projects Abroad always made it clear what our itinerary for the duration of week would entail and strongly communicated it to the volunteers.
Our entire week consisted of shadowing medical students at the local public pediatric hospital. For the most part, all of the medical students knew English, which made communicating with them about what they were doing very easy. One thing that I was able to experience while abroad in Argentina is the socialized healthcare system that people so badly yearn for here in the States. Being able to see a socialized healthcare system in action helped me realize the implications of socialized healthcare and all of the pros and cons that accompany it.
The hygiene conditions, when compared to the United States, were not up to par. There were dogs in the lobby area, cigarette smoke overwhelmed the fresh air, and the area was anything but sterile. When I brought this up to the medical students, they responded that since it was a public (socialized) hospital, the funding they received was so little that they had to be sparing with their supplies and could not ensure that every inch of the hospital stay clean. They could not sterilize the table each time a patient left because they only had a particular amount of alcohol and other hygiene products.
Another downside I noticed was that there was a shortage of aesthetic and other supplies that medical professionals in the States could not dream of being without. This story that made me realize how double-sided the sword of socialized healthcare is: a little boy came in with a gash above his left eye and required three stitches. The doctors, as hard as they tried, could not calm him down enough to be able to suture his wound and did not have any local aesthetic to spare. They told me that his mother could go and buy aesthetic at a pharmacy, but the mother could not afford it, which was why they were at a public hospital. After about an hour, the boy calmed down enough where they were able to suture him up. The free medical services and lack of funding did force the operation to be performed in less than ideal conditions for the boy, however, without the public hospital, the boy’s eye would have gone untreated. He was able to have his eye repaired because of the free services they received. This helped me realize the differences in the types of healthcare systems we have in the two countries.
My overall experience
One other lesson that helped me to learn about the differences between the two countries was on the last day of the trip when the doctors that worked at our hospital went on strike. They went on strike to protest their incredibly low salaries. These professionals, who studied for seven years in order to be able to help people and save lives, were paid less money than bus drivers. When I realized that these people made so little money and dealt with these conditions, I realized that these individuals were doing this job purely out of their desire to help others. This realization had a profound impact on me, and made me look up to the doctors and medical students I had met during the week.
I could talk for days about my week-long experience that I had exploring medicine abroad in Argentina, but since we don’t have that time, I’ll leave my reader with this message: just do it. This trip was something that I never expected to get so much out of, and helped me to expand my comfort zone immensely. A comfort zone is great but nothing ever grows there unless you challenge yourself for new experiences. There was never a point in the trip at which I felt uncomfortable in my surroundings.
Prior to departing, I was probably just as hesitant about a trip to an unfamiliar country as the next person; but after my experience and indulging in the rich Argentinian culture, I can say I have never been so grateful and delighted with a decision I have made before.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.