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This week we interviewed Mercedes Olave, who has been working with MEDLIFE since May 2016 as a MEDLIFE nurse in Cusco, Peru.
Why did you choose to work for MEDLIFE?
My work has always been to reach populations with most need in my profession, healthcare. That is why I identified with MEDLIFE.
What do you have to do as a MEDLIFE nurse?
I have to coordinate the clinics with the community and community leaders. I have to motivate them to care for their health, work to prevent illness, and organize spaces to hold clinics. I also have to make sure they announce the clinics to their communities. I set up the clinics, work at stations. I also have to coordinate with the medical professionals as well, make sure they have an adequate space, all the equipment is there on time. When clinics have finished, I run the patient follow up program in Cusco.
Can you tell us more about patient followup?
The patients are in rural communities. I have to visit them in their homes. Then it depends on the diagnosis they have. I bring medicine, I see what their situation is. If they need more specialized attention, I coordinate and program care with the hospitals and accompany them to appointments.
Do you have a particular story that has left an impression on you?
We met a 13 year old girl with a breast tumor. We visited her in her community, coordinated with the family, now we have a surgical intervention scheduled for next week.
Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?
I really identify with MEDLIFE’s work. We reach populations with the most need, where the health sector doesn’t reach. They are the most isolated populations, not populations in the capital, or in the center of the district. The populations with this need are not large, they are small, they are communities with 30, 40, 50 families. We want to reach these communities bringing medicine and medical attention. Many of these communities aren’t even accessible by motorized vehicles. For me, working with MEDLIFE is very interesting. I really like working with the volunteers as well, our foreign friends who come. In truth, they make feel like we should work even more because they do. We have a team of professionals who really care about MEDLIFE’s work, and that deliver a high quality of care, and really respect our patients.
When Doris Guacho Haya brought her twin daughters into the local health post to get them their state required vaccines, the doctor told her they were healthy and normal for seven-month old infants. But at 9 months, the doctor delivered some bad news: Doris’s twins were falling ill to the same condition that plagues so many other children in the impoverished farming communities of Ecuador’s Chimborazo province- malnutrition.
“It’s not their fault,” she said, as she stared at her twin girls simultaneously breastfeeding in her arms. She gives her twins breast milk 4 times a day, and sometimes some rice or soup when there is money. But the doctor told her she needed to feed them 5 times a day, not just breast milk, but fruit and meat. She didn’t have money for that, the work she had one day a week cleaning houses and doing laundry only brought in about $30 a month. She didn’t know how she was going to afford to get them more food. Despite her efforts, her kids hadn’t put on weight 6 months later when Doris brought them into a MEDLIFE Mobile Clinic.
In Ecuador the minimum wage is $354 a month, the poverty line is $82 a month, and the extreme poverty line is $46 a month. Making only $30 a month, Doris sits well below all of these markers. Doris lives in a small agrarian community in Chimborazo, located in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes. Doris’s economic situation is not unique here. In Ecuador, 43% of rural people are living in poverty, and 19% are in extreme poverty, as compared to 24% and 8% nationally. The parroquia (a small subdivision within provinces with its own smaller local government) where Doris lives, San Juan, is particularly impoverished, with 84% of residents living below the poverty line.
Ecuador’s population is comprised of 38% indigenous peoples, which makes Chimborazo the home of a large portion of Ecuador’s indigenous population. This population continues speaking Quetchua, dressing in traditional clothing and living off the land much like they have for centuries.
Families often have multi-generational roots to their land and homes, and these roots typically remain deep and unbroken. Doris lives in a small home with 4 rooms, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen with a wood fire stove. She shares this home with 14 people, her parents, eight of her 10 siblings, and her own three children. Bedrooms are packed full at night, there is barely enough room for everyone to fit indoors at the same time. “We have never had a bank account or a credit card, a car, or even a donkey,” Doris’s mother said. Doris was born there, her mother was born there, and so were her grandparents. “This is the home of our family,” she said.
Life is hard in these places. A subsistence farming lifestyle, harsh climate, physical isolation and lack of access to services contribute to a host of economic and public health problems. Here, the elderly hobble by with stooped postures and creaking joints swollen by arthritis created by years of hard physical labour, the mothers are young and the children are skinny, with cheeks cracked and scorched red from the cold dry air that sweeps across the hillsides where they live.
Doris is a single mother, her first daughter and her twins are from different fathers, both whom offer her no support and refuse to recognize the children as theirs. “One of them is married, and the other is poor,” she explained. She dropped out of school when she had her first daughter at 18 . She had her twins at age 23, now 24, she is left to care for the three children on her own with the support of her parents and siblings.
That is why there was never enough to go around- that is how everyone got so skinny, her young twins dangerously so.
Malnutrition is among the most serious of the many public health problems in this area. Government data from 2013 put national rates of chronic malnutrition in children under five at 26%, but it is much higher, at 52% in Chimborazo. Malnutrition, along with lack of access to health services are among the major factors that contribute to infant mortality and other developmental deficiencies. The government has put forth a plan to reduce malnutrition rates, but its effects often don’t reach, or hit as a mere drop in the bucket, residents living in remote communities like Doris.
When her doctor told her that her nine month old twins were underweight, she was given a small packet of Chis Paz, a micronutrient supplement being handed out as part of the government’s plan to combat malnutrition. She quickly ran out of it, and when she went back to the doctor, her twin’s condition had not improved. Her kids were still underweight, but this time she was told there were no more vitamins.
“They say that public healthcare is free with the government’s campesino (peasant) insurance policy,” said MEDLIFE nurse Maria, who has lived in Chimborazo her whole live, and worked with MEDLIFE patients there for a decade. “But when you go to the health post, nothing is available, or the waiting list is so long you could die before getting the treatment you need.”
I heard this sentiment expressed whenever I asked about the local health posts in the Chimborazo region; “they didn’t have what I needed, nothing is available,” people told me again and again. It is not uncommon for a single health post staffed with less than twenty people to serve all rural communities a three hours drive in every direction. Given the costs in time and money to make the often long and arduous trip to the nearest health post and the lack of available services, many don’t bother going.
After 6 months of working to help her daughters put on weight with no results, Doris brought her daughters into a MEDLIFE mobile clinic. We gave them supplements of milk and vitamins, and her daughters have finally begun to put on a little weight after a few weeks. When MEDLIFE encounters children who are experiencing chronic malnutrition in clinics, we give vitamins, try and give guidance to the mothers, and in more serious cases add them to our patient followup list. MEDLIFE followup nurses will continue to check in with Doris’s family to monitor their progress and help provide them with supplemental nutrition to get their children back to good health.
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A massive thank you to Foothill High School, California for sending a group of 18 students from their MEDLIFE chapter to our mobile clinic in Lima last week. We would like to give a big thanks to the initiative and cooperation of these students and their parents. As minors, the students had to be accompanied by chaperones, something they organised themselves to make the trip a possibility. It is so amazing to see such determination so early on for these students to get out to Lima and help serve the underprivileged communities we work with!
A massive thank you to everyone who attended the Lima mobile clinic last week. Thanks to our volunteers, we were able to treat 481 patients with medical attention, 86 patients were able to see our dentist and 133 got to our OB station. We are looking forward to continuing to support our high school chapters and seeing more and more high school students at our clinics.
In 2002, optometrist Dr. Sammy Rose and engineer Holland Kendall designed and created an optical set-up which could analyse a person's vision. The machine works with a computer programme to select the glasses prescription which best matches the person's eyesight. This machine, worth $17,000, enabled the two men to start setting up optometry stations at medical clinics all over the world.
In 2005, the machine was taken on a trip to Honduras. The trip was part of Dr. Rose’s missionary work to help teach impoverished communities and give them the medical attention they desperately needed. It was one of many trips that Dr. Rose had embarked upon to enable his optical set-up to help benefit those with poor eyesight who otherwise would not get treated. It was however the first trip taken by Dr. Rose’s son, Samuel. Aged just 11 at the time, he was keen to get involved with his father’s work. This was also the trip that sparked Samuel’s interest in the work that would eventually lead to him bringing the first optometry station to a MEDLIFE mobile clinic.
Samuel Rose, now a biology major at The University of Mississippi, went to Honduras on nine occasions during high school; helping his father and learning about optometry and missionary work for himself. Samuel told us how important these trips were in shaping his future, explaining how “I developed a passion for mission work and helping people in poor areas.”
However, Samuel also told us how when he started at college, he could no longer devote so much of his time to this work. “I did not have time to go on mission trips and couldn’t afford to miss so much class”, Samuel explained. However, he was still keen to continue helping his father and using the optical machine to bring glasses to those in need. Therefore, when a friend came back from a MEDLIFE trip just before Samuel was about to begin his junior year at college, he was excited to hear about what MEDLIFE had to offer and how he could get involved.
Soon after starting his third year of college, Samuel signed up for his first MEDLIFE trip to Lima and he hasn’t looked back since. “Once I returned home I was quick to try to get involved [with MEDLIFE],” he said. “I was so happy to have found something to fill that absence I had had for so long.” Samuel was soon asked to become president for the MEDLIFE chapter at his school and in this capacity got to work planning to bring his father’s machine to set up an optical station at a MEDLIFE mobile clinic. On his first phone call with MEDLIFE Volunteer Coordinator Kristine Paiste, he explained how he wanted to be able to set up this station. MEDLIFE then started working to collaborate with Samuel and his chapter to make this happen.
“I've seen just how much glasses can change a person's life and I knew that I was capable of making this happen for MEDLIFE. Our chapter is young,” he said. “It was started in 2013 and I wanted to make a difference as the new president to show that leaps could be made even by a young chapter.” Samuel set about contacting Holland Kendall, the engineer who had helped create the optical set-up. They ran through the details of the machine and how to work it so that Samuel would be able to operate it on his own in Lima. Samuel received a donation of 1000 pairs of glasses for the optometry station. He measured each pair manually and then entered the data into his father’s machine, corresponding each one with a number that matched the prescription. He then spent $400 flying the machine and glasses out to Peru last week to be set up and used on the MEDLIFE clinic.
Thanks to Samuel, we were able to have an optometry station present at 5 clinics last week alongside the usual dental, medical and OB stations. With the help of an optometrist, Samuel was able to treat 257 patients across the week who had come from all over Lima’s impoverished communities after hearing about this special clinic. It was amazing to see these people being given their sight back. There was a huge amount of gratitude from all who received glasses for MEDLIFE and Samuel’s work. “In this community people don’t have glasses because they cost and we can’t pay but now thanks to you they are free. You have given us all back our sight” one man told us after being prescribed a pair of glasses by Samuel. Another family were all given glasses and explained how much it would help them; “we are so happy and grateful to you all, this will make such a difference in our lives”.
When Samuel was explaining his work, he referenced back to the Gandhi quote that appears on the back of MEDLIFE t-shirts: “be the change you wish to see in the world”. He told us how important this quote was to him and explained how it had been part of his motivation to get the optometry station to a MEDLIFE clinic. “I know I can't change the whole world but I can change the way people see it. Now 257 people see it differently. I did this because I was blessed with the opportunity to make someone's life better, I did this because I felt like God wanted me to be that change Gandhi talked about.” Samuel also explained to us that these new glasses would not just affect these people’s sight, but that he hoped it would be able to continue to make an impact in their lives long term. Children will be able to get a better education as they will not be hindered by being unable to see what they are supposed to be reading or learning. Adults will be able to do their jobs better without having to worry that their sight is letting them down. Even MEDLIFE staff benefited from the clinic with some of our medical professionals visiting the station at the end of the day and receiving glasses they have been in need of for a long time.
Without Samuel’s support and initiative, MEDLIFE would never have been able to get this station off the ground. It was amazing to be able to bring optometry to our clinics and we hope it is something we will be able to expand upon in the future. Samuel finished by telling us that he hopes for the same thing;“I hope it improves the quality of life that these wonderful people have because it's what they deserve. I'm honored that I was able to help make this happen with MEDLIFE and I hope I can figure out a way to provide this station on trips after I am gone.” Seeing this kind of support from chapter members is hugely important for MEDLIFE and we hope that this collaboration and many others will continue into the future as MEDLIFE continues to expand.
Jorge's ramp is complete! The MEDLIFE Summer Intern 2016 project was inaugurated yesterday, and Jorge used his ramp for the first time. After fundraising over $700 in 7 hours, the project construction began: his home transformed and we were able to add the ramp, redo the roof and frontal structures, add plants and paint the exterior! Jorge is now able to leave his wheelchair-accessible home and is no longer confined to staying inside despite his limited mobility. He is excited to be able to play with his son and engage with his family outdoors. Thank you to all donors - it is because of you that we were able to make a positive impact on Jorge's family.
In July of 2016 MEDLIFE held two trips in collaboration with Broadreach for high school students in Ecuador, where we delivered the same immersive hands-on experience that we do for all of our volunteers. Thank you to all of the volunteers who participated for doing a great job and creating an incredible experience for all involved. Over the two weeks we had 247 general medicine patients, 98 breast exams, 35 pap smears, 49 dental patients, and taught 133 kids how to brush their teeth. We will continue expanding opportunities for high school students so that we can bring the MEDLIFE experience to a whole new group of students.
A few months ago, a young mother arrived at a MEDLIFE mobile clinic with her 2 month old son. He had a cleft lip which he had been struggling with since birth and, upon looking inside his mouth, our doctors observed that he also had a cleft palate. The young boy’s mother told us that her son, Ángel Zarate had been diagnosed by doctors just a few days after his birth. The family had been informed that three operations would be needed to treat Ángles condition and the quicker they were done, the more effective they would be.
Ángel lives in a small community in the hills of Villa Maria del Triunfo, the largest district of Lima’s ‘Pueblos Jovenes’. The house Ángel shares with his brother and parents is small and does not have access to electricity and running water. Furthermore, the only access to the house is up a steep slope that is covered in dust and rubble. This is the path that Ángel’s mother had to climb everyday throughout both her pregnancies.
Despite living in extreme poverty as so many in Lima’s slums do, Ángel’s parents were determined to be able to get the treatment their son needed. After Ángel’s birth, the family moved into his grandmother's house as the cold conditions and difficulties with the hill were too much to contend with for a baby in Ángel’s condition. Doctors who had been reviewing Ángel’s condition said that it was important for the baby to be kept in a warm and comfortable environment both before and after the operation to give him the optimum opportunity to recover. They also stressed the importance of Ángel taking the necessary medications recommended after the operation. The family were told that their health care (SIS) would cover the cost of Ángel’s operations but that these medications would not necessarily be covered by the system.
This is where MEDLIFE came in. After explaining the situation to us at the mobile clinic, Ángel’s mum signed Ángel on to the MEDLIFE patient follow up list. The first operation on Ángel’s lip took place just over a week ago on Monday 18th July. A few days after the operation, one of our nurses went to visit the family to see how the operation had gone. The change was remarkable, there was hardly any evidence of Ángel’s previous cleft lip apart from a small scar. Ángel has been prescribed a cream and some pills to take to help the healing process which MEDLIFE will pay for if it is not covered by the hospital.
Ángel still needs two more operations. One to fix his cleft palate which will take place in a year and a final one to straighten out his nose when he is seven. MEDLIFE will continue to visit Ángel and provide him with any financial or medical support the family need. Ángel’s mother told us how important it was to her and her family to be receiving this support. She explained how “even though it’s only a little thing, it is making such a difference in my life and the life of my baby. It means so much to us to know that people care about our family”. We are looking forward to watching Ángel grow and being able to support him in his development.
Camila is 4 years old and suffers from cerebral palsy which she contracted aged 1 year and 2 months as a result of an intraparenchymal hemorrhage. Her illness means that Camila is unable to move or communicate with anyone around her.
Tatiana is Camila’s mother and primary carer. She gave up school and then work for Camila and, until recently has been working at a local market selling honey and coffee in order to pay for the medication Camila needs. Camila is in constant need of attention and therapy and it falls on Tatiana to make sure she gets all the treatment necessary to deal with her illness.
MEDLIFE have been working with Camila and her family for over a year and since then have been able to contribute to the medication Camila needs. However, one of the biggest issues Tatiana faces is having to balance earning money to afford Camila’s treatment with being around to care for Camilla. Tatiana told MEDLIFE that one of the most useful things would be for her to be able to work close enough to home that she could bring money in whilst also being able to take care of Camila.
One of the pillars of the MEDLIFE ideology is sustainable development and support, therefore, MEDLIFE made it our mission to make this hope of Tatiana’s a reality. We fundraised to buy a sandwich cart for Tatiana that would allow her to make and sell sandwiches directly outside her house. After raising the $1000 required thanks to the support of the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras and individual donors, last week we were able to deliver the sandwich cart to its new owner.
Tatiana told us what a difference this would make to hers and Camila’s lives. She told us how “[Camila] needs help almost every hour of the day. I can’t leave to work or go out with anyone. This cart will help me get back my independence and will enable me to earn the money I need to deal with Camila’s condition”.
This year’s summer volunteer affairs interns were lucky enough to be Tatiana’s first customers and enjoyed chicken and beef burgers and vegetarian sandwiches from Tatiana’s cart on Friday afternoon. Volunteer affairs intern Alexa Friedman said “being one of Tatiana's customers really showed me how the work MEDLIFE does is personal and sustainable. It made me proud to be interning for this kind of non-profit.” This opinion seemed to be shared by many of the interns who seemed happy to be able to partake in what will hopefully be a life changing moment with Tatiana, Camila and the rest of their family. Tatiana Gerena, another intern told us how “being able to support Tatiana from start to finish was so great. Her sandwiches were delicious and I have to admit that I went back for seconds!”
Two weeks ago, MEDLIFE doctors, nurses and clinic leaders made the 3 hour journey from the city of Esmeraldas to the small, isolated community of Canalon in the province of Muisne, Ecuador. The clinic staff had to take two buses over rocky, undefined roads and pile into a small boat to reach the community that is all but cut off from Ecuador’s main cities. The journey was made to set up one of the most ambitious mobile clinics we have established so far. Over 170 people from five different communities made the journey to Canalon on 29th June to seek medical attention from the clinic. As always, MEDLIFE staff were offering medical treatment and advice to attendees of the clinic. However, in addition they were also offering support and help for those community members who had been affected by the recent earthquake that shook this, and many other areas of Ecuador, in April of this year.
Following the catastrophe on April 16, MEDLIFE in Ecuador has been working tirelessly with affected communities to bring medical attention and development to areas that need it most. The earthquake, which struck Ecuador’s provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabi with a 7.8 magnitude, caused around 661 deaths and resulted in over 7000 injuries. Furthermore, there was severe impact on infrastructure with more than 2000 buildings damaged and over 24,000 people left homeless.
Jama, a community of about 20,000 in the coastal region of Ecuador, was hit especially hard by the earthquake and MEDLIFE has been working closely with the people of this district to provide the help needed to rebuild the worst affected areas. Since the earthquake struck, MEDLIFE’s Earthquake Relief Fund has been going towards rebuilding and fixing many of the buildings that were destroyed in this area. The fund, which totalled $18,962, is being used in conjunction with money from the provincial government of Tena to construct houses and bathrooms for the individuals and families who suffered most from this natural disaster.
In working with the government, MEDLIFE is able to create a more sustainable development and reconstruction project for this community. Since April, MEDLIFE have succeeded in working with the government to complete two bathroom projects in this area and another eight are planned to be completed over the next few months. In addition to the infrastructural improvement projects being run by MEDLIFE, the Canalon clinic was established to make sure even those most isolated from the rest of the country were able to receive medical attention if they needed it. Three months on and the work MEDLIFE and other NGOs have been putting in, along with the government, is beginning to bring normality back to the affected provinces.
However, though under control, the assistance needed as a result of this earthquake is still far from being over. Just a few days ago, on July 10, two more earthquakes were recorded in the Esmeraldas province. These recent tremors reached magnitudes of 5.9 and 6.4 respectively on the Richter scale and are thought to have been aftershocks of the April disaster. The recent earthquakes have caused further damage to infrastructure in affected areas that, though not as severe as in April, still needs attention. Martha Chicaiza, director of MED Programs in Ecuador told us that this would be more repair and maintenance work than reconstruction. Martha described how “the first earthquake entirely destroyed buildings, this time however it will be more fixing the roof of a school or rebuilding the wall of a house than having to create entire new buildings”.
MEDLIFE hopes to be able to continue to work with the government on these projects to create sustainable development in the communities and continue to run more clinics like Canalon where possible. Being able to support the affected communities to the best of our ability will make a difference in how much these people suffer from this disaster. As the projects continue, we will keep our website updated with information about the communities and the progress of the projects.
We would like to give a huge thanks and congratulations to Univeristy of Georgia MEDLIFE chapter, who was able to raise an incredible $9476 to put towards the Ecuador earthquake relief fund. Their work will have a significant impace This is what the UGA board had to say about running a succesful chapter and fundraisers.
How long has your chapter been around?
Our chapter was founded in Fall 2010 with 10 active members.
How big is it?
We had 258 active members in our chapter this year with a 10 member executive board.
What was your reaction when you first heard about the earthquake?
We were shocked and saddened by the news, especially when we realized that the earthquake had such a high magnitude.
How has your chapter fundriased in the past?
Our chapter hosted a benefit concert to raise money to build a bathroom for a school in Tena that was in desperate need of improved sanitation, and UGA students volunteered at a mobile clinic over winter break to help complete the project.
How did you fundraise so much for the earthquake so quickly?
We feel a personal connection to this part of the world and wanted to do all we could to help! Over the course of our school year at UGA we fundraised money through large events such as our annual Spring 5K and winter benefit concert, as well as through smaller fundraising initiatives such as selling Peruvian scarves bought from MEDLIFE mobile clinics, baked goods, Butter Braids (a baked goods company), and Homeless Help Cards (a phone app used to alleviate poverty). Additionally, we hosted a Kaplan course auction, held many percentage nights at local restaurants, volunteered to clean our UGA stadium, and canned downtown Athens.
What obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
Making our cause stand out at a university with hundreds of service organizations was definitely a challenge, but communicating our passion for MEDLIFE’s mission to others through social media, advertisements, and everyday conversations helped to make our fundraising efforts a success!
What advice do you have for other chapters thinking about sponsoring a project?
Make sure to start planning large fundraising events as early as possible, but also remember to be flexible! Don’t be afraid to try new ideas and initiatives. If you share your enthusiasm for the specific project with other students and members of the community, they will be more willing to support you!
How do you feel about the impact you are making with the money you raised?
We are proud of what we have accomplished, and we are very grateful for our members and executive board for their continuous teamwork and dedication to this cause. However, we also realize that our contribution can only alleviate a fraction of the pain and suffering in Ecuador. We hope to return to Tena, Esmeraldas, or Quito on future mobile clinics in order to help rebuild the communities that have become so dear to us.
Anything else you would like to add?
Although fundraising contributes a great deal to relief efforts, hands-on service is also a key component of global disaster relief. In April, some of our members volunteered with Medshare, a nonprofit organization that organizes and packages unused and surplus medical supplies to send to countries in need. All of the supplies we sorted were sent to Ecuador. Fundraising provides the means for making these relief efforts a reality through service, so we want to emphasize the importance of volunteering to bring Medicine, Education and Development to Low Income Families Everywhere.