- About Us
- Volunteer Trips
- Where We Work
- Get Involved
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 manner to obtain 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 instable 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 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 conducted 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 this 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 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, everyone discussed how positive the experience has been.
Dr. Lu was overwhelmingly appreciative the of 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:
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.