I began the eighteen hour journey to Peru on the fourth of July. My second flight took off from Dallas, Texas at night, and as the plane rose in the sky, tiny bursts of color from the fireworks down below grew smaller and smaller. When I landed in Lima, and then in Cusco, the patriotism of the day before still echoed in my mind.
In Cusco, I volunteered at an orphanage for disabled children and adults, and also at a clinic in the pediatric unit for mentally and/or physically disabled children. Days could be exhausting: I played with kids who could not engage in conversation or in some cases, couldn’t speak at all. I fed children who were unable to move to nourish themselves, and tried to console agitated children who could not self-calm or respond to my voice or touch. But however mentally or physically exhausting it was, it was also frequently rewarding and gratifying.
One day I saw a family of four sitting at a child-sized table: a mother, father and their two young daughters. The older child was physically disabled and lived in the hospital. While she had no use of her legs, her mind functioned like a typical child her age. I sat down with them, and we began speaking in Spanish. I learned that the family lived four hours away by bus and that they came here because a therapy program offered at this clinic gave their daughter the best opportunity to be able to walk. They then asked me where I was from and what I was doing at the clinic. I told them about my plan to go into the medical field, my aspiration to learn Spanish, about taking classes, volunteering, and about my shadowing doctors at the local hospital. They then asked what the healthcare system was like in the United States and how much a program like this one might cost. I did my best to answer their questions, but my insufficient Spanish vocabulary made it difficult. After speaking for a while, they apologized, saying they had to leave to catch the bus back home. The father lifted up the younger daughter to kiss my cheek and firmly shook my hand. He looked in my eyes with intense appreciation and hope, as if my simple responses somehow lessened his concerns and eased his mind. I hugged the mother and wished them good luck on their journey.
It took me a while to determine what was so unsettling about that encounter. Eventually, I realized it was a combination of the questions about the United States’ health care and the father’s profuse gratitude. It was as if our conversation alone had renewed their faith in their daughter’s therapy program. Although I’m a student with essentially no therapy experience or medical training, my presence somehow gave them hope that their child, one of the people they loved most on the entire planet, would eventually improve and live a better life. Was it merely having someone to talk to and connect with that made such an impact? Or was it a hope that the United States would send trained professionals to treat patients there? Or some other cause? Whatever the reason, the encounter stuck with me. As I sat thinking, the contrast between the intense patriotism I felt during the day I left the United States and the family’s desperation for an answer or any small improvement was striking. What if the pride in our country’s achievements and our capabilities can be transformed into something meaningful that can improve the lives of many in addition to American citizens?
In my opinion, our impact on health care delivery and access in the world can be greater. The aid we can give in the form of supplies could benefit an immeasurable number of lives. For example, I saw in Cusco that during basic checkups or in emergencies, the family of the patient must go to the hospital’s pharmacy to buy gloves for their doctor. If not, gloves will not be used because hospitals do not have the funding to buy them. In the rural hospitals there are not enough basic supplies to stock each exam room, so when an emergency arises, the doctor must first locate antiseptic wipes, gauze, and other materials before treating the patients.
I’m not sure the best way to lessen these gaps but I can’t help but notice that some people in the United States seem to take the availability of basic necessities, access to healthcare and many other advantages for granted, advantages that are not offered in other parts of the world and even certain areas of our own country. Maybe my generation can live up to the idea of hope and promise that some individuals may place in us and truly impact the world.
When I returned to the United States I felt an initial gratitude and appreciation for the basic comforts of home and everyday items I normally relied on: hot water or favorite foods that I missed while abroad. But after the novelty wore off, such luxuries seemed unnecessary. I began to miss the freezing cold nights and conversations with taxi drivers in Peru. I flashed back to the bare, half painted walls of the hospital and doctors who worked with inadequate supplies within an inefficient system. I was lucky enough to be born in the United States; the people from the clinic were simply born in Cusco. This simple difference continues to motivate me to lessen the breach between the qualities of healthcare our two countries. Ideally, I would like to be work with the World Health Organization or Doctors Without Borders, to integrate what I’ve learned as a Public Health major into the practice of medicine. While I continue to work toward earning my bachelor’s degree, I plan to work as a translator, hopefully in Latin America, and to continue to work toward lessening health disparities in underserved communities.
About Madison Camarlinghi
Madison Camarlinghi is from Santa Cruz, California and double majoring in Biology and Public Health. She plans to graduate in 2018 from Santa Clara University. Over the summer, she participated in a Spanish and Medicine program in Cusco, Peru taking language classes, volunteering, and shadowing doctors. At school, she is involved in the Biology and Pre Health Clubs and is working as a TA for the introductory biology classes. She currently volunteers as a Health Ambassador for the Second Harvest Food Bank to provide nutrition information and food to low income community members. She also enjoys drawing and photography.