Volunteering at my one of my local hospitals and working as a CNA has provided me with a good understanding of how basic healthcare in our country works. After volunteering in the U.S., I decided that volunteering abroad was a natural next step so that I could learn more about how healthcare works in a developing country. I came across an amazing opportunity that included hands-on experience where participants get to interact with healthcare staff and patients while living in their community. It was the type of experience that my previous shadowing and volunteering didn’t incorporate. During my shadowing experiences in the U.S., I’ve been able to observe but not interact with the patients, and through my experience volunteering at a local hospital I was able to interact with patients by wheelchair-ing people to their cars, and stocking the ER rooms and nurse’s carts with supplies but what lacked there was the interactions with physicians. So, after extensive research into different programs, I felt that volunteering in Peru would provide a combination of both interacting with patients and physicians. By my senior year I was finally able to book the trip. And even luckier, I was able to share this experience with my friend, Samantha.
The trip consisted of one week living with a local host family in the beautiful city of Cusco, Peru. My program pushed me out of comfort zone to try new things. For example, I was placed in a clinic 25 minutes from my host family and the only way to reach this place is by bus. Coming from Texas, I was used to driving, so it was an experience traveling by bus, and learning the routes. I also had to learn how to use a new currency and speak Spanish, a language I don’t use frequently.
Getting acclimated to the altitude was another experience, since Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level and very hilly. It was an everyday struggle just walking to the store a block away, or up the hill to catch the bus. At first, I suffered from altitude sickness, but as the week went by my lungs got stronger. It was all worth it to be surrounded by beautiful landscapes that reminded me of middle earth–from Lord of the Rings.
During my placement at the short-staffed clinic, I interacted with new mothers bringing in their babies for checkups. My job involved weighing and measuring the baby while the doctor or nurse went over the next steps with the parent and administered any required shots. I also helped create new patient folders, and sorted paper work. While it may not sound like so much fun, this work was essential for the clinic to be able to operate. Paper forms I was sorting were needed for the hundreds of patients to receive services or medication. Everything was done manually since there were no electronic files, so I knew my work was critical.
The program also allowed me to help a doctor on her visits to a few schools. Cusco has almost eradicated common diseases found in developing nations such as measles and tuberculosis by doctors visiting schools to educate the teachers and parents about vaccines. (Vaccines are provided by the government). In addition to this education, we provided screenings for anemia by checking the student’s hemoglobin. This is necessary because meat is not common in Peru; the people primarily eat a chicken based diet so iron deficiency is common Parasites are another common a problem because poor conditions in the neighborhoods, so we also gave the children anti-parasite medication. Another highlight for me included seeing a TB screening, and assisting the doctor with physicals for the children.
Now that I am back home and can reflect on my experience, I can say my biggest regret is only participating for one week. I would recommend to anyone considering a similar experience, to try to find a program that is at least two weeks long so that they are able to go more in depth in their volunteer experience. The main reason I didn’t do a longer program was the cost (since I paid for it myself).
I don’t think volunteering abroad is for everyone, or that it will necessarily give me an advantage when I apply to medical school. It was something I decided to do for myself. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and do my small part to help people from another part of the world obtain the necessities required to live a healthy life. Unfortunately, healthcare is not always accessible in Cusco and in many other communities across the world.
I came home thinking that I’m extremely lucky to have healthcare resources in my community and I feel very thankful for that. In the end, I am extremely thankful and honored for everything I got to see, experience and all the wonderful people I got to meet during my experience in Peru. I definitely feel that I would like to go back to work with the people in Cusco again. Until then, I have a fresh perspective and new motivation as I continue to look for new ways to help by volunteering here at home in Texas. This experience helped me realize that pediatrics might be an option I should explore because I found helping children really compelling.
About Stephanie Cantu
Stephanie Cantu is from El Paso, TX and is a junior at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is a pre-med biology major with a minor in Spanish and chemistry. She is the first of her family to attend to a university. She volunteers for South Texas Healthcare System and is a student researcher for Texas A&M Agrilife Research Extension in Weslaco. She plans to get more involved in her community by volunteering and shadowing at different facilities to learn more about the health issues affecting her community. She is on a new and mysterious road where it has been doubted if she can succeed, and hopes to prove them wrong as she takes the remainder of her biology courses and continues her journey of becoming a surgeon.