- About Us
- Volunteer Trips
- Where We Work
- Get Involved
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:
Ten-year-old Blanca Evas’ older sister passed away when she was only eighteen years old. The loss devastated her family, but they found solace through their earth-based spiritual beliefs; from their understanding, the snow swept her away. Though resolved in their minds, this death’s legacy persisted; it lived on as the first case in a series of medical complications in their family.
MEDLIFE met Blanca at a mobile clinic in 2014 held in Pachamama Grande, Parroquia Tixan, a small village three hours outside of Riobamba, Ecuador. Blanca, like all mobile clinic attendees, was given a standard checkup: doctors checked her blood pressure, heartbeat, height, weight, etc.
However, Blanca’s heartbeat revealed an irregularity, one significant enough to prompt a follow-up investigation. This discovery led MEDLIFE staff to start connecting the dots between Blanca’s case and her family’s medical history.
MEDLIFE staff and clinic doctors in Riobamba were hyper vigilant about Blanca’s case because of their experience with her four-year-old cousin Norma. Norma is currently a MEDLIFE follow-up patient who recently underwent surgery for a congenital heart condition that, left untreated, would have killed her.
Doctors speculated that Blanca’s irregularity was related to the illness Norma previously suffered from. After further investigation, their fears were confirmed. With the arrival of not one, but two cases of cardiac conditions in this family, doctors hypothesized that Blanca’s older sister most likely passed away from the same, unattended illness.
After confirming Blanca’s condition, MEDLIFE assured her family it was imperative that she saw a cardiologist. The only thing preventing that, however, was her family’s religious beliefs; they, along with many in their village, do not believe in modern medicine, but rather trust in alternative healing methods.
MEDLIFE staff had expected to encounter this obstacle with Blanca’s family considering the difficulty they had convincing Norma’s parents to allow her go to a hospital. When MEDLIFE approached Blanca’s parents about her condition, they were surprised to learn the parents were already aware of Blanca’s problem and they had already taken measures to resolve it.
A few years ago, Blanca’s family scraped together enough money, along with the aid of a bank loan to bring Blanca to a spiritual healer to cure her condition. The family of ten children put forth all of their economic resources to pay for the spiritual healer. They did not want to lose another daughter. The trip was unfortunately unsuccessful; Blanca’s condition persisted, as well as their debt to the bank. To this day, Blanca’s parents continue to pay off their bank loan slowly with the father’s minimal wages as a farm hand.
After MEDLIFE’s positive experience with Norma and understanding Blanca’s fatal condition, the organization came forward with an alternative solution to Blanca’s condition: heart surgery. Though Blanca’s father was skeptical at first, he graciously accepted MEDLIFE’s assistance and agreed to let Blanca be seen by a cardiologist.
The cardiologist conducted a few exams and confirmed Blanca’s moderate pulmonary heart disease, and her immediate need for life-saving surgery. Without the surgery, the doctor said Blanca’s condition would eventually lead to death in her sleep.
Blanca finally underwent surgery in the fall of 2014, and MEDLIFE saw her through the entire process, covering the expenses from before the operation to after it. Blanca’s surgeon is happy to report the operation was a huge success and she has made a full recovery.
Blanca’s next steps will be returning to Quito for follow-up appointments with her surgeon, and continuing to live a normal life. MEDLIFE is happy to have been part of the recovery of another bright young patient!
The University of Puerto Rico at Recinto de Rio Piedras' MEDLIFE chapter never seizes to impress! This chapter has seen significant progress since it got its start three years ago. From organizing consistently successful events, to achieving incredible growth in membership, this MEDLIFE stands out as a group with a big impact. Read the following interview with U.P.R.R.P. to learn more about this chapter, how they recruit new members, and what they do to support MEDLIFE's mission on campus and in the local community.
When and how did your chapter begin? What strategies did you use to promote MEDLIFE on campus?
Our MEDLIFE chapter, UPR-RP, began three years ago. Only eight people showed up to our first meeting, but regardless, we stayed motivated and continued with the chapter. At the beginning, we had one or two activities per month, and little by little more people kept joining. The following year, the chapter had 120 people and in the winter of that year we were able to bring around 60 of those members on a mobile clinic trip, which was a huge achievement for us. After that trip people just couldn’t resist our marketing! We increased the number of activities, had our first initiation as a club and ended up with 180 people in our chapter. The following academic year, in August of 2014, we made a huge push in advertising through Facebook and all over the University; we held lots of service activities almost every week, in addition to fundraisers and other chapter activities. I feel very proud to say that after our aggressive recruitment campaign, we now have more than 375 active members of our chapter.
What process does a new member go through once part of the chapter?
In order for a member to be considered “active” in our organization, they have to participate in at least three service activities and two fundraisers. Beyond that, they have to attend the chapter meetings and must always demonstrate our organization's values.
What activities do you organize to keep your members interested throughout the year?
We have activities literally every week, which are either service or fundraising events. We always put photos from the events on Facebook, which makes other people want to participate in our activities. We organize activities based on what our members ask for; if they want to work with homeless people, then we do activities that have to do with the homeless, both children and the elderly. We also work together with several other organizations when they need volunteers. The idea is to do simple but interesting activities.
We have some fun fundraising activities such as selling treats and cards that we made for Valentine’s Day, selling pizza, selling breakfast or lunch, and bake sales with our famous brownies! We hold educational activities, such as our first MEDTalk where we brought a public health specialist, who is held in very high-esteem here in Puerto Rico, Dr. Vargas Vidot. He focuses his practice on service and helping people in need. During this event, 80 people attended, and we had students from the InterAmerican UPR–Aguadilla chapter come as well!
What are your goals as a chapter for this academic year (2014-2015)?
Our goals for this academic year, 2014-2015:
When Gustavo Cartagena was a young adult, his aspirations were many. He dreamed of providing more for his family than his parents ever could during his own childhood. Though he was born into poverty, Gustavo saw a bright economic future ahead—he had hope.
Gustavo is now thirty-one years old and a father of four, but unfortunately he has been unable to accomplish any of the goals he set for himself when he was younger. Gustavo could not have predicted that he would develop an illness that would prevent him from achieving any professional career while sending his family even deeper into poverty.
Gustavo’s first professional dream was primary education, but he could not afford the tuition to earn a teaching degree. This disappointment did not deter Gustavo; it only reshaped his professional dreams. He next aspired to be professional chauffeur, a very lucrative position in his small Ecuadorian town of Cumana de la via Banos. With his blossoming family in mind, Gustavo set his sights on a career to pull his family out of poverty.
Similar to Gustavo’s short-lived teaching career, his new dream was never given a chance. This time, however, his ambitions were not halted due to economic constraints. Gustavo failed the preliminary eye exam required to enter Chauffeur School. He was told his poor eyesight rendered him practically blind and unfit to drive, thus crushing his dreams of being a chauffeur.
Though this moment was heartbreaking, the result had not come as a surprise. At the time of Gustavo’s chauffeur entrance exam, his vision had already been causing him trouble for quite some time. Gustavo did not want to believe he was going blind in his twenties, but the signs were undeniable.
The first indication was a change in his ability to see objects and recognize people—even his own family. At times, he could not recognize the person standing right in front of him. At first, he brushed off these incidents and made up excuses to conceal his impairment to the people around him. He could not pretend for long; a shadow was beginning to cloud his vision, slowly darkening and warping his sight.
Although teaching and chauffeuring did not work out, Gustavo was able to find work in construction. It was unstable at times, but he earned a sufficient salary to support his four children. It was through this work that he was introduced to MEDLIFE, years after his symptoms first began. The organization saw his immediate need for medical help and brought him to the doctor for exams and an official diagnosis.
Gustavo was diagnosed with astigmatism and a severe keratoconus of his right eye, and mild version of it in his left eye. The keratoconus was causing his eyes to slowly take the shape of a cone, a deformity that was distorting his vision. Doctors affirmed that, if left unattended, the keratoconus would eventually lead to complete blindness.
When doctors informed Gustavo that he would need a transplant, the news was bittersweet. For years, Gustavo was aware that he needed surgery of some kind, but his economic situation prevented him from affording an operation.
Throughout Gustavo’s adulthood, he has been trapped in a vicious poverty cycle: he can not find good work due to his condition, and because he can not make a comfortable living, he can not afford the necessary medical care, let alone a comfortable house for his family to live in. Gustavo, his wife, and their four children reside in a barely livable two-room house; one room serves as a bedroom for their entire family, and the other is their kitchen.
Gustavo’s progressing symptoms eventually barred him from work altogether, and his dreams of improving his family’s economic situation fell flat. Although Gustavo’s wife was able to pick up the responsibility of providing for their family by selling baked goods at the market, Gustavo feels as though he failed his family. While Gustavo was losing his sight, his wife was barely making enough money to feed their children, leaving their family in dire economic straits.
Little did Gustavo know that meeting MEDLIFE would reverse his dark path into complete blindness. MEDLIFE stepped in and informed Gustavo that he would finally get the surgery he needed to cure the keratoconus in his right eye. Gustavo and his wife were stunned. Although Gustavo’s condition was curable, they never believed that they would actually be able to afford the surgery to overcome it.
With MEDLIFE by Gustavo’s side throughout the entire process, he underwent a successful surgery, and is one step closer to regaining his sight. Recovery will be a slow process and Gustavo is aware of the patience required to endure the wait. He bides his time eagerly knowing that his eyes will one day be sharp enough to land him the chauffeuring position he dreamed about years ago.
Though hope was previously lost, the future Gustavo planned for himself and for his family is fortunately in sight.
In the slums of Pamplona Alta, getting from one place to another by foot is far different than for a person living on flat land. Many steep, slippery hills cover the landscape, making it a daily challenge to get from one place to another. The precarious stone steps that serve as a form of a staircase downhill lack railings or any form of support, increasing the risk of falling. The need for safe, constructed staircases is the most basic necessity, but one that greatly improves quality of life for people living in the hills.
MEDLIFE combats this issue prevalent to Lima by constructing staircases throughout the hills in the area. Did you ever wonder how we decide where to build our next staircase? Our journey with Eulalia Palomino is a perfect example of this process:
Eulalia Rodriguez Palomino first met MEDLIFE when she visited a mobile clinic in February 2014. She took advantage of the free medical services MEDLIFE offers at the clinics and was given a pap smear. After some time, Eulalia received her pap smear result from the MEDLIFE nurses—it was positive. Eulalia had known there was an issue because she was often in pain, but it was only after her consultation with the MEDLIFE doctors that she found out she needed a hysterectomy. She was frightened for her health, but she had the operation and it went smoothly.
Upon leaving the hospital, Eulalia’s doctor instructed her to not have any sexual relations for at least four months, time the internal wound would need to properly heal.
Eulalia, like many of the people who live in the outskirts of Lima, migrated to the capital city from the rural Andes region, and still lives by traditional Andean culture. Part of the culture is the belief that women belong to their husbands. Sexual intercourse is seen as one of the ways to reinforce the machismo role, and Eulalia’s husband did not want to abide by the doctor's orders.
As a result, a painful infection grew that required additional medical attention, otherwise it could spread and spiral into a much more serious issue. Eulalia’s husband decided he did not want to deal with his wife’s medical obstacles or caring for their three children, so he left them to fend for themselves at a time when they needed his support the most.
Eulalia now lives with her children up in the hills, a lifestyle that has proved extremely difficult for her, as she was suffering from a painful recovery and an infection. Eulalia’s current home does not have running water and has limited electricity. To make their situation worse, she and her children must walk a significant distance in order to reach a potable water source, where they fill their buckets at the stations to use for the day.
MEDLIFE supported Eulalia with all of her medical expenses related to her hysterectomy, but our support does not stop there. After learning more about Eulalia and her story, we realized her need stretches much further than medical attention. Though Eulalia was recently confronted with this medical obstacle, her family faces additional danger every day when they risk their safety and walk along treacherous paths near their home—just to access water.
We want to continue supporting Eulalia by building a staircase, a safe way to come and go from her home. You can be a part of Eulalia’s story and help build her a staircase here.
The year-long MEDLIFE interns and the members of the community "33B" worked together last week on a new staircase that will benefit more than 300 people. Follow the story below:
The task took hours, hands and clothes got dirty, but they never stopped smiling!
As the President of the Johns Hopkins MEDLIFE chapter last year, and one of its founding board members, I have been involved with MEDLIFE’s activities for many years. Three years ago, I attended a two-week mobile clinic in Lima, where I was able to help with blood pressure checks, tooth fillings, pap smears, and the many other services MEDLIFE provides. I quickly realized, however, that what I really learned was about much more than the medicine —it was about the people. I had connected so well with everyone I met, from the local doctors to the street vendors to the families building staircases with us in Lima’s hills. It is this connection that stayed with me, and drove me to apply for the yearlong internship three years later.
Being chosen as a Student Affairs Intern is a unique opportunity for me to make a significant difference in the lives of the underserved communities in Lima and around the world. I am so excited to take my involvement with MEDLIFE to the next level and encourage others to do the same. My experience in Peru three years ago made me look at healthcare from a different, more global perspective, rather than just the individual doctor-patient relationship I was previously exposed to. By further experiencing the different aspects of healthcare delivery and service through the MEDLIFE internship this year, I hope to gain fresh perspectives and cultural sensitivity that improve the manner in which I live my life, personally and professionally.
Furthermore, I hope to learn more about the inner workings of a successful and rapidly growing non-profit organization, while also gaining valuable experience working with doctors and nurses, community leaders and student chapters. I hope that this internship is just the first step towards a lifelong career of international service. At every health clinic I have visited, in Peru and around the world, the trend was the same: they were understaffed and desperately needed more doctors. Upon returning from this internship, I hope to go to medical school and become an OB/GYN so that I can travel the world and meet the demand for quality healthcare.
After my first couple months in Lima, I am more and more excited about what this year has in store for me. I have already become very close with my roommates and fellow interns and feel at home in our cozy little apartment. After struggling to remember my Spanish for the first few days, I finally feel comfortable having a conversation with the local taxi drivers, vendors at our neighborhood mercado, and even my new Peruvian friends.
My first day here, another year-long intern and I attended the biggest food festival in South America, Mistura. I ate numerous pork and chicken dishes, drank a yellow Peruvian soda called “Inca Cola”, and ended with a special doughnut-like dessert called “picarones”. The whole festival was seaside along Lima’s “Costa Verde” and we had the most beautiful view while we feasted on all the mouthwatering Peruvian dishes. It was the most incredible start to an incredible experience here in Lima.
During that first weekend, we also visited a gorgeous park called Parque Kennedy, located in Lima’s tourist district, Miraflores. It was a surprisingly warm day for what is winter here in Peru, and we all soaked in the sun and chatted while playing with the cats that roam freely in the park. We then went to Barranco and ate fish tacos, and ended the night with coffee from a trendy spot called the Sofá Café. It was a beautiful day in Lima, and a perfect way to kick-start my adventures here in the months to come.
On my first day in the field, the interns and I went with Carlos, the Director of MEDLIFE Peru, who is so passionate about the work we do in the community; it was inspiring. He introduced us to a woman named Maria, who lives in a shack that no one should have to call a home. It was just a makeshift roof placed in between two neighboring houses - no walls, no floor, and no light. On top of the poverty Maria faces, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. The burden of trying to provide for the family and pay for Maria’s medicines drove Maria’s husband to alcoholism, and she has been left to provide for the family herself.
I spoke to Maria while standing in her “kitchen” for a while. There were flies all around us, and garbage all over the floor. As she was talking, my eyes filled with tears, and I became more and more aware of the urgency and significance of our work here in Lima. Maria’s story was not new to me. I had heard of many similar stories, and seen countless pictures of houses just like hers. Yet standing in her kitchen, looking in her eyes, and hearing the pain in her voice, Maria’s story became real. I am still struggling to come to terms with the realities and hardships of her daily life, and the lives of the many others living in the mountain areas here. It is hard to accept how unfair it is that people are living in such poverty while next door they see so much privilege. I ended up giving Maria a teary hug, promising her that we would do everything in our power to help her. I hope we are able to fulfill this promise very soon.
A few interns and MEDLIFE nurses ascended a steep, slippery hill on the outskirts of Lima to pay one of our follow-up patients a visit. The journey to six-year-old Luis Poma’s house required several transfers, from packed buses to zippy moto taxis, ending in a tiring trek up muddy hills into the clouds. Despite the complicated route, Luis’ mother makes this climb every day with her dependent son cradled in her arms.
Luis’ first encounter with MEDLIFE was in 2011 at MEDLIFE’s first mobile clinic hosted in their neighborhood. Luis’ sister carried him to the clinic to be seen by a doctor, but her visit was cut short and she left before Luis received any medical attention. His family waited until there was another clinic in their area to approach the organization—several years later in 2014.
After finally connecting with Luis’ family and learning about their significant obstacles, MEDLIFE determined Luis would be enrolled in our follow-up patient program considering his medical condition and financial constraints.
Luis was born prematurely at five-and-a-half months and spent the first weeks of his life in the Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital. Even after being released from intensive care, his health complications persisted. Within his first year, Luis was rushed back to the hospital when he suffered from a hemorrhagic stroke. For this emergency journey, Luis’ mother had no choice but to take a crowded city bus with her son in her arms. To this day there is very little access to ambulances in their area. This is the reality for people residing high up in Lima’s practically inaccessible hills.
At the hospital, an MRI revealed that Luis’ body was not recuperating well from the stroke. Luis’ family could not afford the expensive medication and treatment he needed. As a result, Luis did not properly recover from the stroke, which left him blind and mostly immobile with several physical obstacles, including hip dysplasia. Consequently, Luis has not sustained appropriate developmental progress for his age and he is essentially mute.
Luis’ condition causes his small family immense hardship, and their level of poverty inhibits them from affording him proper care. They do not have savings or the finances to support Luis’ condition and he has endured years without receiving appropriate medical attention.
Luis’ mother used to make a living by selling food at a market, which was just enough to help provide for the family. After Luis fell ill, however, she was forced to stop working so she could care for him. Luis’ health is her first priority and she dedicates her time to taking care of her son and carrying him to therapy, such a time consuming event that he had to stop attending school. To make matters worse, Luis’ father abandoned the family when Luis’ condition worsened and proved difficult to provide for. The rest of his family, except his two older sisters whom both have families of their own, provides no support—Luis’ mother is on her own to care for her son.
As a MEDLIFE follow-up patient, Luis receives support with physical therapy and necessary medical supplies such as diapers, sleep and pain medication, and shoes. We have been fortunate enough to provide Luis with a wheelchair personalized to his physical handicap as well as fund his therapy sessions to improve his muscular dysplasia.
The wheelchair gives Luis the ability to sit upright and therapy has helped his arms and legs achieve more range of motion— things that were incredibly difficult to manage before. We are overjoyed to see this young boy’s progress over the last few months, though his journey to this point has not been easy.
Although our efforts have helped a great deal, Luis still requires significant medical attention in his current condition. We want to do more.
MEDLIFE brainstorms ways we can be most effective within our resources. In addition to medical support, there are often alternative, more sustainable ways we can make a difference in our patients’ lives.
The most important thing for Luis’ family right now, in addition to continued therapy, is some form of sustainable income to survive on. Luis and his mother are both bound to their home as a result of his condition; she is his full-time caretaker. Due to this limitation, Luis’ mother struggles to make ends meet, let alone afford Luis’ medical needs. MEDLIFE’s goal is to help Luis’ mother set up a little shop to be run from their home so she can support her family while continuing to care for Luis. If you are interested in being a part of Luis' story, click here to find out how you can help.
The shelter that awaited us at Seferina’s address has few characteristics that distinguish it from the hillside it slumps on. Camouflaged by the surrounding grass and dirt, the 70-year-old’s tiny cottage is made up of molding hatched sugar can straw and damp cardboard hung from a sparse wooden frame. This has been her home for the past 30 years.
The juxtaposition between Seferina’s dilapidated abode and the two-story, concrete buildings on either side is stark and tragic. Carlos Benavides, MEDLIFE Peru’s Director and our guide for the day, pointed to the neighboring buildings and said, “This is the quality of home we want to give Seferina—she deserves a better life.”
We were greeted with a kiss on the cheek and Seferina's warm, welcoming smile, though she admitted she was feeling “Un poco mal,” —a little bad. Seferina surprised us with her strength and vigor; she hobbled down the steep dirt path to the street at a quick pace despite having a heavy limp on her left side. The feat was even more impressive after my own stumbling on the way up the same path she had navigated with relative ease. Seferina hefted a wooden post and used it to prop up her falling door. We ducked our heads and filed in.
A feeling of overwhelming sadness fell over me upon entering her home. I gazed over her environment in utter disbelief that a woman of her age, let alone anyone, lives in such conditions. Thirty years of accumulated plastic bags, newspaper, boxes and miscellaneous items —trash—fills her home from floor to ceiling, leaving a path only wide enough for one person to pass through. I turned my gaze upwards to observe patches of sunlight that shone through gaping holes in her misshapen roof. She gestured for us to follow her through her dwelling to the back section, her bedroom, which consists of two worn mattresses stacked on top of one another lying beneath a wall of garbage waiting to topple down onto her bed.
"I gazed over her environment in utter disbelief that a woman of her age, let alone anyone, lives in such conditions."
Seferina confessed that she is scared to sleep in such dangerous conditions. She is worried for her safety living in such a poorly constructed home, one that could easily collapse inwards or catch of fire. Every time she turns on the electricity she risks sparking a fire to her house; she flips a circuit switch connected to several exposed and tangled wires that lead to a single light bulb hanging precariously from her roof.
Seferina’s level of poverty, she explained, has become increasingly more difficult to endure. Her home lacks two unquestionable essentials: a bathroom and kitchen. “I like to cook, but this is all I have,” Seferina said as she motioned to a pan and a carton of eggs sitting next to a flat rock she uses to prepare food. To go to the bathroom, she treks to neighboring stores or takes a moto taxi to the market where she sometimes sells little carmelitas and cookies for income. Otherwise, Seferina survives off of a small welfare stipend, which, she admits, is barely enough.
“Yo soy solita" - I am alone, Seferina declared. With no family—no husband or children—to look after her, Seferina is afraid no one knows she is there. Her neighbors, who are fortunate enough to reside in sturdy concrete buildings, do not even acknowledge her. A little while back, Seferina was hit by a car when chasing a cat out of the street. As a result, she walks in very visible pain. If the injury had been more severe, she wouldn’t have had anyone to care for her.
In addition to a leg injury sustained from the accident, Seferina is almost completely blind. Unfortunately, her physical state makes her considerably accident-prone, especially in her unsteady and dangerous house. Moreover, Seferina is often sick, partially because of her age, but mostly due to the cold night air that seeps in through poorly insulated walls, which makes her the entirety of her belongings damp and moldy.
After our interview with Seferina, we said our goodbyes and informed her of our goal to build her a better home. Her face lit up with joy and immense gratitude. “Imagine living in those conditions,” Carlos proposed as we departed Seferina’s residence and reflected on our visit.
MEDLIFE hopes to improve Seferina’s quality of life, but we need your help. You can provide a new beginning.
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.