Volunteer Review: Margaret M., Medicine in Peru
I am a pre-medical student from Albuquerque, New Mexico though I am currently going to college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my summer, but when I came to my college guidance counsellor with the vague idea of going to a Spanish speaking country on some sort of medical internship, she immediately recommended Projects Abroad. This turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me. As soon as I applied for the internship, I was immediately put in contact with people to call and email with questions, including alumni from Projects Abroad. They checked up on me in the weeks leading up to my placement and helped make sure I was ready and had all I needed to prepare for my trip.
I am not going to lie, despite the best efforts of the Projects Abroad staff and I, not everything about the trip was easy. My flight to Lima was delayed by more than nine hours, and my knowledge of Spanish had never been tested in international airports. Upon landing in the airport in Cusco I was absolutely terrified, so much so that I was barely able to focus on the beautiful mountain scenery as I flew past.
The Projects Abroad staff was always available and always ready to help me when I needed it, even when what I needed was something small like directions to the mall or how to find a taxi. Hugo, a member of staff, brought me to my host family in the beautiful district of San Jerónimo, right by the university, where I stayed for the entirety of the two months I was in Peru.
My host family
My host mother, Zolia was away when I arrived, but her adult sons Henry and Eric helped me to get settled in and cooked me a delicious Peruvian dinner. They had me drink some coca tea to help prevent altitude sickness (which I, luckily, never did experience). During my time there, I lived in an apartment above their house that they kept especially for volunteers. Zolia, once I met her, was one of the most wonderful, caring people I have ever known. She was like a second mother to me during my time in Peru.
The morning after I arrived in Peru, Pati, my supervisor, arrived to help me get to my placement. She showed me how to take the bus there, and then took me to change my American dollars and buy a cell phone to use while I was there. There were a few complications with my first placement and after the first day I was moved to la Clinica Peruano Suiza.
The doctors there were extremely friendly and willing to help me learn how to do just about everything in the hospital. Though I did spend a lot of time making beds and helping the nurses to bathe patients, I also took oxygen levels and other vitals and often assisted during emergencies. I was even given the opportunity to tour the most advanced blood lab in Cusco.
Every one of our patients brought special color to the hospital, from the old man who was in serious pain from a pelvic surgery yet always remained cheerful and friendly to the American lady who complained louder than anyone. Some patients seemed very oblivious to their conditions as well. I remember clearly one man who had a cast around his broken nose that blocked his nostrils. Every time the doctor asked how he was feeling, he would tell her that he couldn’t breathe through his nose, as though this wasn’t obvious. Finally, getting a bit frustrated with the repetition, she asked him specifically, “Do you have any complaints besides not being able to breathe through your nose?” He looked thoughtful for a good thirty seconds before replying in all seriousness, “Well, doctor, I can’t breathe through my nose.” It was difficult to keep a straight face.
Once the staff knew me well enough to trust my fluency in Spanish and English, I was set to translate for our patients who only spoke English as well. I considered this a huge honor, especially as I do intend to become certified as a Spanish translator to help when I open my own medical practice. A few times, I had nurses come to get me at a full run because one of our English-speaking patients was having an emergency. Our hospital also had other English-speaking students from other programs visit, though none of them for more than a week or so. On one of my last days, I was asked to translate for a guest-lecturer on neurology giving a presentation to a group of these students.
I truly felt like a member of the family at la Clinica Peruano Suiza by the time it was time for me to leave. On my birthday, the staff bought me a cake (and shoved my face in it, a Peruvian birthday tradition).
Not every story there had a happy ending, though. Over the first month I spent in Peru, I witnessed the slow decline of a woman who I liked very much. She was a patient who suffered from cancer and had already been in the hospital for over a month when I arrived. She was an incredibly kind person and had two children not much older than me, and it was heart-breaking to watch her through her ups and downs until she finally passed away. Death is a part of life, and one that I have to come to terms with as a future medical practitioner, but I was unprepared for how much I would miss someone that I had only known for a month.
My time in Peru has vastly improved my grasp of the Spanish language as well as solidified my decision to go to medical school. Besides that, it helped me to gain the skills to survive and thrive in areas different from what I am used to, something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Because Projects Abroad arranged weekly get-togethers for the volunteers, we became a sort of community during the time we spent there. My third day in Peru, we had a get-together to watch the Inti Raymi parade in the beautiful Plaza de Armas. After this meeting, myself and several other volunteers ended up arranging a trip to go to visit Lake Titicaca together. This was a little scary since it was my first time ever on an overnight bus as well as my first time staying in a hostel, but it ended up being one of my favorite experiences on the entire trip. Other scheduled activities involved a cooking class, a pottery class, and some hiking.
The other volunteers were always there for me, from teaching me how to use the bus system to celebrating my birthday to showing me the best stores to buy souvenirs. Where they couldn’t help me, Hugo, Pati, and Kendall, the Projects Abroad employees in Cusco, did. All of them went above and beyond in helping to make my experience the most positive one possible, and I cannot thank them enough. This experience has forever changed who I am as a person. If you have a chance to take a trip with Projects abroad, I would suggest that you take it. You won’t regret it.
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.