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Women of all ages are encouraged to conduct self-breast exams at least once a month. Despite the age-inclusive recommendation, however, pre-teen girls are not usually expected to monitor their breast health as closely as, say, middle-aged women. Generally speaking, girls on the brink of puberty seldom have to worry about finding lumps in their newly emerging bumps; younger women are at a much lower risk of developing breast-related health complications. Therefore, when 13-year-old Maricielo Garcia felt soreness and a small growth in her right breast, she thought nothing of it.
She thought, “maybe it will go away with time,” but the pain persisted and the lump grew, as did Maricielo’s concern.
The pain Maricielo started experiencing in early 2014 caused her mild discomfort, but she was not sure what to make of the occasional soreness and small bouts of unfamiliar nipple discharge. She thought, “maybe it will go away with time,” but the pain persisted and the lump grew, as did Maricielo’s concern.
Maricielo’s fears were confirmed in the spring of 2014 when her aunt brought her to a MEDLIFE mobile clinic in their district of Villa Maria del Triunfo near their home in Lima. After passing through the general medicine station at the clinic, Maricielo was directed to visit the obstetrician/gynecologist. She placed herself in line alongside her older female neighbors who were waiting their turn for pap smears and breast cancer screenings. Needless to say Maricielo felt out of place.
When it was Maricielo’s turn, the gynecologist investigated the area in pain and identified the existence of a lump. For Maricielo, the situation became all too real when the gynecologist said she would need a follow-up appointment at a nearby hospital.
MEDLIFE enrolled Maricielo in the follow-up patient program and scheduled her a visit with a specialist at a hospital. Young Maricielo maintained a mature composer as she patiently endured ultrasounds, mammograms, and long hours through meetings with doctors, all to arrive at a diagnosis. Maricielo was told she had a fibroadenoma in her right breast; it was a large, benign tumor composed of connective tissue, liquid and fat that continued to grow and cause her pain. The tumor would need to be removed with a surgery.
Although the tumor was not causing any internal damage to Maricielo’s body—it was simply an annoyance—the pain she was in merited a surgery on its own, let alone the side effects being extremely embarrassing for a girl of her age. The nipple discharge constantly stained her shirts and the pain from the tumor inhibited her from partaking in physical activity with other children.
Developing a breast tumor was certainly not something Maricielo expected when she moved ten hours away to Lima from her home in Trujillo, Peru in 2013. Maricielo was relocated to Peru’s capital for access to a better education and more lucrative job opportunities. Maricielo’s father back in Trujillo struggled to provide for all of his children after his wife past away five years ago. His sisters in Lima, Maricielo’s aunts, sympathized with his situation and offered to lessen his financial burden by caring for his eldest daughter. So, Maricielo moved to Lima.
When MEDLIFE met with the aunt Maricielo currently lives with, she explained that she wanted to support her brother in any way she could afford to; in this case, that meant being a mother figure for her niece. Maricielo’s aunt has four children of her own, so she and her sister share the financial responsibility of taking care of Maricielo. They are splitting expenses for food and school until Maricielo is old enough to support herself and start sending money back to her family in Trujillo. Although more financially stable than Maricielo’s father, her aunts certainly could not afford this unexpected medical expense related to their niece’s health, so they were grateful for MEDLIFE’s support.
Maricielo, her aunts, and all involved parties hoped for a swift and painless process— a meeting with the doctor, the diagnosis, a surgery, and speedy recovery. Unfortunately, a series of external factors overthrew the projected timeline.
The hospital that was initially in charge of Maricielo’s case entered into months of widespread and tiring employee protests, which essentially barred access to any medical care that was not an emergency. Not wanting to reopen Maricielo’s case at a new hospital, everyone waited hoping the strikes would subside after a few weeks. Unfortunately, the strikes dragged on, the hospital remained closed, and Maricielo’s case could not proceed for several months.
The delay not only diminished Maricielo’s spirits, but also incited a feeling of mistrust in MEDLIFE. Maricielo and her aunt’s inherent skepticism of aid organizations in general began to shape their opinion of MEDLIFE. People in these communities are all too used to other NGO’s and political organizations that often promise support for new beginnings, but seldom deliver. In their minds, MEDLIFE was just another organization getting their hopes up only to disappoint.
Despite the obstacle, MEDLIFE would never abandon Maricielo’s case. When it became apparent that the strike would not be resolved anytime soon, and impatience levels continued to rise, MEDLIFE pulled Maricielo’s case from the idle hospital and started it anew at a fully functional one. Doctors at this hospital treated Maricielo’s as they would any new patient and started her case from scratch. After a stretch of repetitive exams, Maricielo’s new doctors boiled their findings down to the all-too-familiar diagnosis. This time, however, no hospital strike would inhibit Maricielo from finally getting the benign but obtrusive tumor removed.
After months of anticipation, the wait was finally over; Maricielo went under the knife in December of 2014 to shed the undesirable fibroadenoma. In this case, MEDLIFE covered all related expenses including the operation, appointments and transportation, and coordinated all hospital visits to ensure Maricielo received the best care.
As doctors predicted, the operation went smoothly, and within a week Maricielo was going about her life as a normal 13-year-old girl again. Though residual soreness from the operation incision still lingered during recovery, no pain lessened Maricielo’s excitement to have overcome this obstacle.
I became involved with MEDLIFE during my senior year of college, at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada after going on a Mobile Clinic trip with MEDLIFE in December 2013, to Riobamba, Ecuador. Although I was already passionate about MEDLIFE and its mission, my experience in Ecuador really sparked my interest to become more involved, so I applied to be a year-long intern at the MEDLIFE National Office in Lima, Peru. After my acceptance in the spring, I was avidly waiting to get here, learn some Spanish, and start working with such a great organization.
I finally landed in Lima after a long, 14-hour day of flying, first from Montreal to Miami, and then from Miami to Lima. After such a long day, I was excited to settle into the new apartment with the other interns. While waiting for my bags, I fervently hoped that Tim, the Student Affairs Director, would be waiting outside to pick me up, as I had left my cell phone back in Canada. Thankfully he was, and we headed out into the foggy night to drive back to the apartment. As we passed the streetlights and traffic lights in the cab, it was hard to get a sense of what the city was really like, but I was excited to be here nonetheless.
I’ve been very blessed throughout my life to have traveled and lived in many countries across the globe – visiting places in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Besides Antarctica, South America was the one part of the world that I wanted to explore but had never had the chance. After living in Lima for just over three months, I’ve had a wonderful time learning about and experiencing the city, which can be both charming and chaotic.
One of my first times out in the field was in September, when I went on a patient care follow-up visit in a district called Villa Maria del Triunfo. The “slums” we work in are located right outside of Lima - only a 30 minute bus ride away from the office. There are a large number of shanty houses built up into the hills, all of which usually lack running water, electricity and flooring. Because these houses are located high up in the hills, one of MEDLIFE's main goals is to build staircases throughout these communities. These staircases will prevent injuries from falling, which has become a serious concern for these people.
The patient we saw on that Tuesday had just received a surgery sponsored by MEDLIFE to remove a lump from her breast. We were interviewing her about her experience with MEDLIFE, and asked her about the follow-up medication that she would need. Hearing this patient talk about how much she appreciated MEDLIFE was an eye-opening experience.. I could really tell how happy she was that we were there to help and her genuine gratitude was very touching.
Since that first field day in September, I’ve learned so much about MEDLIFE, the people we work with, and living in Lima. It has definitely been an unforgettable experience! These past three months have been filled with new experiences for which I am very grateful. Among them, working in the field with our MEDLIFE nurses, helping a community through the building of staircase, and having the opportunity to build relationships in Lima both in and out of MEDLIFE. Though varied and unique, each of these experiences makes me more certain about my goal to continue serving communities in need and doing humanitarian aid work during my career. Although three months have already passed, I’m looking forward to spending another six months here, and learning everything that MEDLIFE has to offer.
Hello from Lima! My name is Charlie and I am a Student Affairs intern here at MEDLIFE in Peru. I’m going to launch straight into a story about a trip the interns made into the field the night of Wednesday, October 1st, 2014:
My ears were still pounding from the whirlwind ride we had taken as I began to hike up the steep gravel path. We (the interns) had just been whisked by a fleet of three-wheeled micro taxis through a labyrinthine neighborhood towards one of the dark hills looming above Nueva Esperanza – a community waiting for us at its summit. A wailing megaphone siren blared from the micro at the head of our procession, mixed with the 90’s techno ballad—“No Limit” by 2 Unlimited—that our driver pumped from his speakers. Combined with the stop motion effect of the strobe light above our windshield as we dodged street mutts and swerved around sharp corners, the trip felt more like a bizarre street race than a convoy en route to a humanitarian outreach meeting. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
We had heard about the community assembly with Ampliación Unión from Carlos Benavides the day before. Carlos is the director of MEDLIFE Peru and it’s most crucial activist in Lima. He works tirelessly at a breakneck pace for the communities we serve and has accumulated an encyclopedic memory of names, faces, and places along the way. By the end of a day with Carlos your mind is full of the stories he has shared about the people you met and places you went. For many in Pamplona, Villa Maria, and Villa El Salvador, Carlos is the face of MEDLIFE.
MEDLIFE is in the process of forming a new partnership with Ampliación Unión, the community waiting on the rocky hill summit. Carlos had had several weeks of correspondence and small meetings with their elected leaders that all led up to this community assembly. They had discussed the needs of the community and what MEDLIFE is prepared to help with. Ampliación Unión is plagued by a lack of critical infrastructure, especially staircases. They also lack access to basic healthcare and preventative diagnostic tests like pap smears. MEDLIFE is prepared to help and Carlos was making it happen. The meeting we zipped to in the micro taxis was an introduction between the greater community and MEDLIFE staff.
"As we crossed over a ridge the illuminated valley emerged below us —a thousand lights laid out in a rough grid along the valley floor."
The navigable roadway ended at the base of a long set of crude steps cut from the packed dirt and rock of the hill. We tumbled out of the micros grinning at our unorthodox approach, however as we began the ascent into darkness the sounds of the city dwindled behind us and we fell silent. The smell of dust mingled with the odor of waste found strewn about in haphazard piles.
Our route wound its way up and around the crest of a hill past rows of makeshift houses, each one more sparsely built than the one below it. As we crossed over a ridge the illuminated valley emerged below us —a thousand lights laid out in a rough grid along the valley floor. The light emanated upwards in hazy halos from each post – given shape by the low clouds that cling to the Lima coastline. Despite the warm glow, a breeze on the ridge-top sent chill, damp air searching through our jackets. We turned our heads uphill and continued along the spine of the ridge.
Off in the distance shone a lone circle of light. As we approached, the figures of the community came into focus and the gravity of the assembly hit me. Men, women, and children, every type and age from the community, surrounded the largest communal space, awaiting our arrival. No moment in this internship has had such an impact on my outlook towards MEDLIFE, its mission, and the people it serves. Devotion and determination was set into each of their faces. It was humbling to behold.
A hush fell over the community as we approached and filed into a single line, forming a half circle opposite the crowd. We could feel their eyes sweep over each of us as the community leader began his opening speech. The people of Ampliación Unión have every reason to be skeptical of MEDLIFE and our mission. The national government and other non-profit organizations have made many empty promises, leaving behind a population wary of outside support. The leader concluded his introduction and presented Carlos, who launched into an in-depth description of MEDLIFE and its purpose.
The meeting continued uninterrupted for two hours and involved a dialogue between MEDLIFE (mostly Carlos) and the community members. Carlos alternated between explaining matters of importance to the community, like public health concerns and infrastructure projects, to fielding questions from them. The people from Ampliación Unión expressed gratitude for us being there and shared stories of their hardships living in such conditions.
When Carlos asked people to come forward to explain what the potential projects would do for them, a young girl named Nicole stood up. Nicole is ten years old and lives in a house along the route where one of the staircases is going to be built. The path by her house is very steep and when it rains it becomes very slick, she told us. Her concern for the safety of her neighbors and her mother brought a tremor into her voice. Her mother had fallen twice, once while she was pregnant, and though she was not injured, Nicole’s younger brother was born prematurely. Her grief became too much and she swept her crying sister into her arms and sat down in tears as everyone nodded their heads in appreciation and respect.
MEDLIFE’s purpose has never been clearer or more purposeful in my eyes. In that moment I felt the true impact that MEDLIFE has on the people it serves. From an outside perspective, a set of stairs seems like a minor project. But when you visit the communities and see the circumstances of where they live, a staircase can be a monumental change. It means each trip outside of the house won’t be a gamble. Children going to school won’t have to worry about leaving an hour early to get to class on time safely. Mothers carrying children in swollen bellies and swaddling clothes will be able to go about their daily routine without endangering their own lives or the ones they care for. Those returning home at night, in the dark, will have a sure path home. A staircase is not a solution by itself, but it is a signification of progress and development in the community. It is a step – several steps – towards a better, more prosperous life for Ampliación Unión, as it is for each of the numerous other communities MEDLIFE serves.
The meeting wound down and the community leader handed over a signed contract, signifying that the whole of Ampliación Unión’s commitment to MEDLIFE. We are jointly going to be building two staircases and will host a mobile medical clinic with long-term follow up care for those who need it. The clinic will provide access to a general practitioner, a dentist, and a woman’s health specialist, including health education workshops and diagnostic testing for cervical and breast cancer.
With many of their fears dispelled and the promise of change on the horizon, the atmosphere at the meeting was almost jovial as it wound down. Handfuls of panetone and warm tea were passed around and thanks exchanged. There are still significant obstacles to living a secure existence in Ampliación Unión, but proof that change can happen is now underway. As we filed off into the darkness from where we had come, I reflected on what we had just witnessed. Community organization and planning has succeeded in changing the fate of Ampliación Unión. Little by little, MEDLIFE is making a difference in the way communities interact within themselves and with each other, and there is no plan to stop soon.
A trip downhill has never felt more uplifting.
MEDLIFE at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a big presence on campus with their effective recruitment efforts and dynamic events. Though part of the MEDLIFE community since 2010, the upcoming year is bound to be an exciting one for this Big Ten chapter. Along with growth in membership, UW-Madison is looking forward to working on a large-scale water project for which they are partnered with MEDLIFE and an international corporation.
When and how did your chapter begin?
Wisconsin MEDLIFE began five years ago when Chris McCarthy heard about MEDLIFE from a friend at another school. Since then, we are proud to have grown our chapter to over 70 members strong!
What strategies did you use to promote MEDLIFE on campus?
We promote MEDLIFE on campus through tabling in high traffic areas on campus, and manning those tables with exec members who can provide students with information about MEDLIFE. Other publicity events include fundraisers and events. Some past fundraisers include an event called “Bucky’s Got Talent”, a campus-wide showcase talent show, our 5k, “Active For Agua” where both students and Madison community members participated in a fundraising event. Other events usually include collaboration with other student orgs. Wisconsin MEDLIFE is part of the Global Health Coalition on campus. This coalition sponsors many health related conferences like Wisconsin “Public Health Week”, where MEDLIFE exec members help plan out the week’s events, bringing in keynote speakers and speaking themselves about the work MEDLIFE does. Next semester, we are hosting either a date auction or fashion show, which will require collaboration across campus.
What system do you use to recruit new members? What process does a new member go through once part of the chapter?
The first three weeks of each semester is a prime time for recruitment. We table heavily in dining halls, high traffic buildings, and at the student org fair by having exec members man the tables and provide info about MEDLIFE! One other strategy that we use is an email blast to the whole campus of 42,000 students through an email listserv we obtain from the office of the Registrar. We have also found it effective for members to spread MEDLIFE awareness through word-of-mouth. Many new chapter members are gained by others sharing their experiences they’ve had with the organization. New members are required to do the same things as every other member. Each semester, we ask members to complete seven “points” and pay dues to be in “good standing”. Points are acquired by attending meetings, participating in volunteering events, fundraisers, marketing events, and socials. Dues are either $25 for the academic year, or $15 per semester and both options include a Wisconsin MEDLIFE t-shirt.
What activities do you organize to keep your members interested throughout the year?
Wisconsin MEDLIFE organizes chapter socials and volunteering events to keep members engaged throughout the year. Past social events have included campfires at Picnic Point off of Lake Mendota, dinners and ice-skating. Volunteer events have include making food for a soup kitchen, campus clean ups, nature preservation projects, and volunteering at food pantries in the Madison area. We also have made toothbrush packages for donation to MEDLIFE that member bring with them on MEDLIFE trips.
What are your goals as a chapter for this academic year (2014-2015)?
Our goals for the 2014 and 2015 year include running successful winter and summer clinics, as well as finalizing a partnership with the Coca-Cola Company in developing a clean water project for those in need in Lima. Executive board members Jeremy O’Brien and Aaron Anderson, along with MEDLIFE staff Tim Anson met with Julia Sobrevilla from Coca-Cola Perú this past summer. She explained that Coca-Cola has the funds to cover the project we proposed. She threw some more logistics back at us to figure out, and exec members Jeremy O’Brien, Mari Sandoval, and Lauren Gladowski are meeting with her again this January in Lima for the second time. The project calls for purchasing tanques de aguas with filters, and distributing them to communities in need. Since the first meeting with Coca-Cola Perú this past summer, Wisconsin MEDLIFE has organized a “Water Project” committee with our members. Tori Charpentier, Development Corps Director at Wisconsin MEDLIFE has been running the committee, and been in contact with MEDLIFE in Lima, fostering grassroots organizing on the community end with Carlos Benavides, MEDLIFE in Peru’s Director. Hopefully this January with the hard work Wisconsin MEDLIFE and staff in Lima has been putting forward, we will finalize the plan and partnership with Coca-Cola.
At MEDLIFE, we believe in preventative medical care. We promote preventative medicine by educating communities on how to lead a healthy life, and by creating healthier environments with our development projects—for example building safe staircases.
Another important aspect of MEDLIFE’s approach to preventative care is being vigilant to catch serious health problems early, so as to prevent their progression. For example, the breast exams and pap smears mobile clinic attendees receive are conducted to catch potential health complications at their start, so they can be addressed as soon as possible. People whose exams return positive or show signs of potentially serious illnesses are enrolled in our follow-up patient program to further investigate the issue.
The additional medical attention for follow-up patients either reveals a legitimate health concern requiring further care, or it turns out to have been only precautionary. Regardless of the likelihood of the medical issue progressing, MEDLIFE always follows up with ‘red flag’ cases because of our strong belief in the power of preventative medicine and catching issues early.
MEDLIFE took exactly this level of precaution when they met 46-year-old Elena Huacatoca at a mobile clinic, near her home in Parroquia Cotundo del Canton Archidona, Ecuador.
A doctor working with MEDLIFE at the mobile clinic reviewed Elena’s general health. As a mother of two and a farm hand who helps cultivate yucca and plantains, Elena appeared mostly healthy at first, but her weakened state was revealed with further examination. The doctor noticed Elena’s frail appearance and low energy level, and that she was burning up with a fever. Elena lamented about not being able to lift her left hand without pain along the left side of her torso, a comment that directed the doctor to skip ahead and conduct the routine breast exam.
Elena presented signs of inflamed auxiliary glands and significant discharge from her left breast. Worried that she could be showing preliminary signs of breast cancer, the doctor ordered Elena to visit a specialty hospital where her case could be further reviewed.
Elena was very shy and apprehensive as she went for her appointment at a hospital in the nearest large city, Riobamba, Ecuador. She admitted being nervous, tense, and worried for the outcome—she feared having cancer. Elena’s young children depend on her dearly as she is their only constant caregiver. Although Elena is married, her husband works on a farm that is a great distance from their village and returns home only every four days. Despite Elena’s fear and hesitation, she agreed to have an ultrasound, mammogram, and cytology on the discharge to aid a diagnosis.
It turns out Elena and MEDLIFE had nothing to worry about; her results returned negative for breast cancer! Doctors at the hospital in Riobamba attributed her weakened physical state and abnormal breast presentation to a diagnosis of chronically inflamed cells and a benign abscess formation in her left breast. The doctor gave Elena the go-ahead to return home along with two prescriptions: a medication to treat the abscess, and strict orders to care for and monitor her health closely in the coming weeks. Equipped with the doctor’s orders and an encouraging prognosis, Elena left the hospital and returned home to care for her children and continue her work as a farm hand.
MEDLIFE staff in Ecuador supported Elena by accompanying her to the appointments and covering all of the related expenses along the way. Cases like Elena’s, where fears are put to rest and discouraging diagnoses disproved, are always what MEDLIFE hopes for. Regardless, MEDLIFE always takes the necessary precautions to ensure that more serious issues do not go unaddressed.
One person’s efforts and generosity resulted in a new home and better quality of life for follow-up patient Julio Mendez Tica. Lisa Pace, a student from the United States, heard Julio's story and how his accident has caused his family immense pain and suffering. Moved by their situation, she set her goal to raise enough money to afford Julio and his family a new home. After 10 days of hard work, the new home is finally complete and ready for Julio’s family to start their new life. See some photos from the project's progression below.
Images of Julio's house before the project show the mold ridden walls, a mangled dirt floor and a deteriorating roof with many holes. The home was in terrible condition, especially for a large family with many small children like Julio's.
Construction began with tearing the old house's walls down, laying a concrete foundation and rebuilding the house with sturdy materials.
Julio's entire family was part of the process, helping with the construction and working alongside MEDLIFE staff.
After the house was rebuilt, the last step was to fill it with new, clean furniture for Julio's refurbished room. MEDLIFE interns carried dressers up a long flight of stairs up the hill the house sits on.
The new house is complete and decorated for the official inauguration! The bright yellow color represents "alegria"—happiness, and illuminates its surrounding area.
Julio's family gathered together to celebrate the beginning of their new life in a safe and clean environment. After so much hardship and sadness caused by Julio's accident, his family sees a happier future ahead, beginning with a positive home environment.
Julio, his family and MEDLIFE are extremely grateful for Lisa Pace's generosity and devotion to this project. Without her, none of this would have been possible. It is truly amazing the impact one person can make on others' lives.
My first experience in Lima, Peru did not begin with the MEDLIFE internship, but with a study abroad program during the summer of 2013. After taking many of the Spanish classes offered at my university, I decided the next step was full immersion in a Spanish speaking culture to become fluent.
I experienced culture shock from the minute I landed at the airport Lima. Beginning with a sea of unfamiliar faces and swarming “taxistas” wanting to offer me their services, I had a feeling my time in Peru would be challenging, but interesting to say the least.
With freedom to explore Lima and Peruvian culture as I studied, it soon became apparent how much poverty truly exists and how much of a need there is for help. With this realization, my perspective of Lima and my study abroad experience shifted from an opportunity for cultural exploration, to a desire to help combat social issues that came into my view.
When I searched for internships the following year, I came across MEDLIFE and knew I had to get involved in some way. The internship appealed to me for many reasons. The MEDIFE mission statement sealed the deal for me, as it resonated with my personal beliefs and the values: health is a basic human right, and it can be achieved through medicine, education, and development. The internship also allowed me to live abroad for a period much longer than the short term of my study abroad program, while also gaining relevant experience for my career. It was a no-brainer.
Though my second trip to Peru with a completely different purpose, the arrival in August of 2014 was just as exhilarating as the first time in 2013. Although I had no prior experience with MEDLIFE before applying for the internship, I was eager to learn and experience everything MEDLIFE has to offer and do the same in return.
In my first four months here, I have collected many humbling experiences and learned a lot from being out in the field. My experiences meeting follow-up patients, building staircases, speaking with an entire community about potential projects and clinics, and communicating with student participants who are just as dedicated and passionate about the mission as I am has been incredibly uplifting.
One exceptional experience that has stood out to me was constructing a staircase with the group of MEDLIFE interns and the community members of 33B, located within Villa Maria del Trifuno. Staircase constructions do not generally emerge in peoples’ minds as useful projects that will benefit an entire community; I know it didn’t for me. However, when interns go into the field—whether it’s for a patient follow-up or to deliver Pap smear results from mobile clinics—Carlos and the nurses never fail to acknowledge the real danger of the steep hills many communities rest on. Carlos and the nurses point out the many red staircases MEDLIFE has built to combat this prevalent issue over the years, and it is a inspiring reminder of MEDLIFE’s progress working in these communities.
I never truly realized the importance of the staircases and the immense relief it provides in communities we work with until I heard testimonials of the people living there and the desperation in their voices during the nighttime meetings with them. People said they fear for the safety of the women, children and the elderly. Often times, the people of the community risk their lives many times a day just climbing up the hills to their homes. Women carry groceries or their children, and children face danger every day just in order to go to school. They do this in any and all weather conditions, health, and subject themselves to threatening falls in order to survive. They do this not because they want to, but because they do not have a choice, and they shouldn’t have to live their lives this way.
Having fallen a few times myself, I know my minor slips are nothing compared to the treacherous journey of the community members. It’s not an easy hike for many of the families in the hills and the dangerous conditions would not be suitable for anyone.
Participating in my first MEDLIFE staircase project was a rewarding and unique experience. It was gratifying to see progress from the start of a path of stones to a finished, chiseled, newly-paved staircase. I was thoroughly impressed with the teamwork and the comradery between MEDLIFE and the community members. We worked hand in hand, helping each other carry buckets of cement to fill the stairs then tossing the empty buckets back up uniformly. Before we knew it, we were finished and enjoying each other’s company while we painted, planted trees, and enjoyed Inka Cola. All our hard work was celebrated in the inauguration of the staircase, the community and MEDLIFE full of smiles.
Although these staircase projects among many MEDLIFE projects and clinics do not provide complete healing and safety, it is a step forward and is a means of alleviating the transportation dangers that comes with living in the slums of Lima. It’s not a significant project but makes all the difference to the 300 habitants of 33B. As we left the hills that afternoon, we could see the vibrant red that shone through the slope, a sign of all our collaborative hard work, and we know there will be many more similar sights to come. This is only the beginning, and MEDLIFE’s work carries on.
During his internship with MEDLIFE in the summer of 2014, Aaron Sanfield went above and beyond what his intern responsibilities entailed. Without planning for it, Aaron’s dedication to MEDLIFE and the individuals it helps changed the course of a baby girl’s life. It all started with a simple conversation between Aaron and Carlos Benavides, the Director of MEDLIFE in Peru.
One day, Carlos confided in Aaron, recounting a story about a patient whose case was troubling him at the time. Carlos explained that he had exhausted all of his resources, but was still grappling to find medical care for a five-month-old baby girl’s rare illness. For the man who always seems to have a remedy—or at least a way to find one—it was upsetting him to be at a loss for the ‘next step’. During their conversation, Carlos unfolded the entire story, beginning with when baby Zhamira’s symptoms first began.
Baby Zhamira’s was only three months old when her seizures started. Her family was shocked by the drastic turn her healthy life, as it arose unprompted by any significant event. The convulsions frightened Zhamira’s grandmother Sabina; she thought her first and only grandchild was dying.
A trip to the hospital landed Zhamira in every department under the sun to identify the cause of her seizures. Doctors first conducted extensive exams in cardiology. When she passed the exams that would determine it a heart issue, Zhamira was rerouted to neurology, another trip that yielded unsatisfactory results. The family repeated this routine many times. They made their rounds through the hospital for two weeks to no avail; Zhamira’s seizures persisted.
Zhamira was finally transferred to endocrinology for more diagnostic exams. The results revealed hormone levels indicative of persistent hypoglycemia. Zhamira’s body was producing an excess of insulin and not enough glucose to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Her plummeting blood glucose levels were cutting off sugar to her brain, resulting in repeat seizures.
Although the exams shed light on the root cause of Zhamira’s symptoms, the discovery was bittersweet. Zhamira’s Pediatric Endocrinologist, Dr. Lu, was the bearer of bad news: hypoglycemia is extremely rare in Peru, and there may be no cure for Zhamira. Though a medication that could stabilize her level exists, it is not manufactured in Peru and there is no easy way of obtaining it, especially for a family with low economic resources.
Zhamira’s doctor, Dr. Lu, prescribed her a temporary fix: feeding every two hours to stabilize her glucose levels and prevent seizures, though her new feeding schedule was not without consequence. The constant feeding, combined with unstable hormone levels, resulted in significant and unhealthy amount of weight gain for an infant.
Zhamira’s grandmother Sabina rejected Dr. Lu’s news. No geographic boundaries or economic obstacles would prevent her granddaughter from getting the best care. With the little information she had, Sabina set off determined to find a solution. Sabina accessed the Internet and conducted extensive research across medical forums, YouTube videos, articles, etc.; she scoured the web to find any information related to hypoglycemia.
Through her research, Sabina discovered there are doctors in the United States who specialize in hypoglycemia in children. Normal treatment in the United States is generally handled with diazoxide, a medication that decreases the body’s insulin release and is most effective for infants and young children such as Zhamira. This was her answer.
Determined to obtain the elusive diazoxide medication for Zhamira, Sabina rummaged through her mental archive of connections to the United States. She remembered a MEDLIFE staircase project in her neighborhood during which she had met many Americans. Wondering if any of them could help, Sabina went out on a limb and reached out to the organization.
Carlos heard of the baby’s unusual case and took it upon himself to seek out a solution. Under Dr. Lu’s advising, Carlos reached out to his network of connections with physicians in the United States. To his disappointment, he struggled to find anyone willing to take on the complicated job of prescribing an expensive medication to be shipped abroad.
With little positive response to Carlos’ efforts, Zhamira’s medicine seemed out of reach. Just when Carlos was at a loss for finding an answer to Zhamira’s case, it emerged from within MEDLIFE—with an intern, Aaron Sanfield. You never know who is going to have the solution.
After hearing Zhamira’s story, Aaron realized that he could potentially be the key to accessing the medication Zhamira needed. Aaron explained to Carlos that his father is an Endocrinologist in the United States and has experience caring for patients with hypoglycemia.
Aaron reached out to his father, Dr. Jeff Sanfield, with Zhamira’s story and her need for the diazoxide medication. Although Dr. Sanfield understood the predicament and sympathized with Zhamira’s case, at first he was hesitant to offer his assistance due to obvious legal stipulations and potential consequences with shipping a medication overseas.
While the family awaited an answer to their proposal, Dr. Lu prepared them for an alternative, but likely outcome: A life without the medication. For Zhamira this meant continued weight gain, feeding every two hours to control her blood glucose levels and subside the seizures, potential diabetes in the future and brain damage from the seizures—an inevitable low quality of life. Unable to imagine that life for Zhamira, her family bided its time with patience and hope for the medication to come through.
Meanwhile in the United States, after speaking with Dr. Lu, Dr. Sanfield was made aware of the urgency of Zhamira’s condition, and her life’s projected trajectory without the diazoxide. Dr. Sanfield reached out to Dr. Chris Cook, a pharmacist at the hospital where he worked. Together, Dr. Cook and Dr. Sanfield teamed up with Dr. Lu to prepare the diazoxide for shipment to Lima. The two doctors became very passionate about Zhamira’s case during the process. The opportunity to improve the quality of life for those less fortunate reminded them of why they entered the field of medicine.
After six months of frequent communication between Dr. Lu and his correspondents in the United States, Dr. Sanfield and Dr. Cook, the medication finally shipped from the United States and arrived at the MEDLIFE office in Lima in the beginning of November of 2014. With news of the arrival, MEDLIFE staff and Dr. Lu immediately planned to rendezvous with Zhamira and her family at a children’s hospital in Lima to administer the first dose the diazoxide.
The meeting was an inspiring moment for MEDLIFE; it was the culmination of many parties’ hard work and dedication to help someone in need. Though only 11 months old at the time of the reunion, Zhamira weighed 31 pounds, around 10 pounds overweight for a baby of her age. Despite this obstacle, she is an energetic, delightfully pudgy, adorable baby. She spent the entire visit testing her novice walking skills and grabbing at faces and hands. A curious and attentive baby, Zhamira makes unwavering eye contact, broken only when she cracks an angelic smile coupled with gurgles and giggles that are so cute you can’t help but return the smile.
Zhamira demonstrated amazing patience as Dr. Lu weighed and measured her and administered the medication with Zhamira’s mother Gisela’s assistance. After a quick conversation about the projected positive effects the medication would have by stabilizing her insulin blood glucose levels, the visit concluded with a reflection on the whole experience.
Dr. Lu was overwhelmingly appreciative for the ease and efficiency communicating with the doctors from the United States. He said their generosity and attention to Zhamira’s case was incredible. Sabina and Gisela became very emotional as they extended their tremendous gratitude towards the people who cared for Zhamira’s health and made obtaining the medication possible: Aaron Sanfield, his father Dr. Sanfiled, Dr. Cook, Dr. Lu, and MEDLIFE. “I don’t know how to thank you,” said Sabina. “My granddaughter has a chance at a normal life.”
Since our reunion at the children’s hospital at the beginning of November, Zhamira has already started showing signs of improvement. With the help of the diazoxide, her insulin and blood glucose levels are normalizing and she is seizure free. MEDLIFE is overjoyed that a problem that previously seemed to have no solution was resolved by the kindness and generosity of many peoples’ collaborative efforts.
Stories like Zhamira’s remind us why the work MEDLIFE does is important, and that with the determination of many, anything is possible.
Standing out recently for its successful work organizing MEDtalks, McGill's MEDLIFE Chapter has a lot to be proud of. This chapter continues to grow since it was launched in 2010 and sets high goals for the future. Our interview with Canada's biggest chapter delves into how they leverage social media to grow the organization's presence on campus, what creative events they plan to keep members engaged and the new "UpClose events" they swapped in for general meetings.
When and how did your chapter begin?
MEDLIFE McGill started in 2010. In 2011, led by Nicole Milward, our chapter greatly expanded our impact on campus. Through effective PR and campus presence, our chapter sent over 100 students to participate in Mobile Clinics that year. Since then, MEDLIFE McGill started many initiatives on campus to further increase awareness of international development and healthcare issues, student body involvement, and fundraising events.
What strategies did you use to promote MEDLIFE on campus?
Since McGill has such a large population, we have been using mainly social media to promote MEDLIFE to students. This involves Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our website. We also promote MEDLIFE through weekly emails to our general members, as well as to various faculties and departments to expand our membership. For specific events and trips promotion, we have committee members make announcements before classes begin, accompanied by PowerPoint slides. In addition, our committees have monthly tabling dates around campus and residences, where they promote upcoming events and trips, as well as the general goals and objectives of MEDLIFE.
What system do you use to recruit new members? What process does a new member go through once part of the chapter?
At the beginning of every semester, we participate in our university’s club fair where new and returning students can browse through the various clubs on campus. At the club fair, we introduce the activities and accomplishments of MEDLIFE McGill and ask the interested students to sign up for our Listserv, which is our electronic mailing system that sends weekly updates about our upcoming events. Afterwards, we hold our first General Meeting for our newly interested students, where we delve into the details of our specific events on campus, as well as our Mobile and Development Trips abroad. There, we also promote the applications to our student committees that our general members can join. Depending on their specific interests, new students can join a committee that suits their strengths and how they wish to contribute to MEDLIFE, whether it be through Fundraising, Tutorials, Sponsorships, Trips or Events. After the committee applications have been processed and its members selected, the executive team will put together a Club Workshop for the new committee members to discuss the nuances of our involvement on campus and abroad, as well as boost team morale. After the club workshop, the new committee members have their own responsibilities under their portfolio; instructed by the executive team member in charge of the committee, the members will contribute to the on-campus events and activities of MEDLIFE McGill.
What activities do you organize to keep your members interested throughout the year?
To keep our members interested, we hold various events and fundraisers on campus. Every month, we have UpClose events, which are drop-in information sessions that we opted to do instead of general meetings. At UpClose, have various booths set up where members can speak to our various executives and committee members about trips, fundraisers, and events. Since 2012, we have also been holding semesterly MEDTalks conferences, where various speakers from the McGill and Montreal community are invited to talk about issues in developing countries. This semester, the topic of our MEDTalks conference is Healthcare in Marginalized Countries and will feature a McGill professor of medicine, an addictions counselor who worked in rural, native communities, and also the founder of our chapter. As for fundraisers, the past couple of years we have tried to focus our events to be more aligned with the three objectives of MEDLIFE (medicine, education, and development). At the beginning of this semester, we had our 5K: Taking STEPS walk/run through McGill campus as well as clubbing night. Next semester, we will have our second annual multicultural coffeehouse, where we invite clubs and students to perform and also educate members on the diversity in McGill. We are also planning a restaurant night in downtown Montreal, de-stressing yoga sessions, and an event at our campus bar. All the funds raised goes towards the MEDLIFE Fund, but this year we are specifically raising money towards building a cafeteria in Lima, Peru, which we feel is a substantial goal for our members.
What are your goals as a chapter for this academic year (2014-2015)?
Our goals this year include raising more awareness for our Mobile Clinics and our new DevCorps Trips on campus through more effective student promotions and events, increase our Local Initiatives projects both on campus and in Montreal, and reach our fundraising goal of $15,000. Our chapter has been rapidly expanding our on-campus impact in the last 2 years; we aim to keep the ball rolling year, as well as strengthen our promotional focus for our international volunteer trips.
Tom Stephens joined the MEDLIFE team in the summer of 2014 as an intern in our communications department. Tom decided to stay on with MEDLIFE to continue his work as a photographer and videographer documenting what the organization does. Tom has captured beautiful and captivating moments from working in the field over the last several months. Take a peak at Tom's work through his eyes: