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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 Julio’s 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.
“I am solita, 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.
From a distance, Soledad Roja’s house in Villa Maria Del Triunfo is barely distinguishable from the hill’s natural landscape; it blends in amongst the gray rocks covered with brown and green moss. Her house appears as a small dark smudge of rotting wood and crumpling walls between brightly colored houses with sturdy foundations and roofs.
Carlos Benavides, MEDLIFE Peru’s Director, did not need to say that our mission for Soledad and her son would be to build them a new house. It was obvious upon our arrival that their living conditions are unsuitable and very unsafe. The family of two stood outside as we navigated the jagged and unsteady rocks —their stairs—leading up to meet them. Soledad and her 10-year-old son Jose Manuel have survived a decade in accommodations that do not even qualify as a house, but would be more aptly described as a deteriorating shelter the size of a small bedroom.
They were timid and a bit apprehensive as we introduced ourselves—Soledad’s young face revealed signs of immense sadness and grief for her situation. Despite some hesitation, she opened her half-hinged door and welcomed us inside, the drizzling rain following us in through a gap in the two puckered, tin slats that make up the roof.
Soledad and Jose’s personal items are few. They share a mattress that rests on their dirt floor, a few ramshackle pieces of furniture, and a jumbled array of plastic bags that protect their clothes from imposing elements. Soledad pointed to her kitchen: a small table in the corner. I spotted a few books and a ball, but they don’t have much else. A dim light hung above the covered side of the shelter, illuminating the thin layer of mold that coats the crumpled walls, one of which is simply a tarp.
Many factors forced Soledad and Jose to live in these conditions and have prevented them from affording anything better. During our interview, Soledad began recounting a brief synopsis of her life story by explaining that she was forced into motherhood at a young age after being raped by a male friend. Her godparents, whom she lived with because her mother is schizophrenic, kicked her out when she became pregnant. Soledad never had a father. Surprisingly, her son’s father remains loosely connected to them; she has recently taken him to court to demand some form of child support.
As a single mother, Soledad’s income must not only provide the bare necessities for herself and her son, but also Jose’s private school tuition. Jose has severe ADHD, for which he also goes to therapy. Soledad considers her son’s education a first priority and will do anything within her power to afford him an adequate education. As a result, the majority of her small income is funneled into a school with the educational resources Jose needs. Soledad explained that on top of the regular charge, the school often requires unexplained additional payments that she must make to keep Jose enrolled.
Soledad works doing inventory at a lab and must work ten hours a day, seven days a week to earn enough money to make ends meet. The other day she fell on the rocks and hurt her back, but she couldn’t afford to miss one day of pay, so she still went to work. Her sister lends a hand by picking Jose up from school and watching him in while Soledad is at work—but she then charges Soledad for her help. After paying for Jose’s public school, paying for electricity, paying her sister and paying for food, Soledad has no savings. “My dream is to save money… any money,” she admitted.
Soledad feels alone. Although her sister is within reach, her help comes at a price, leaving Soledad without any supportive family or friends. She explained that her neighbors are not inclined to offer any assistance; they resent that she is absent from the community, but Soledad is always at work and doesn’t even have time for her son. She said a local church gave her aid when Jose was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, but other than that she has no support.
MEDLIFE would like to provide Soledad and her son Jose with a new house. We want to put a functioning roof over their heads, raise sturdy walls to protect them from the weather, and build safe steps leading up to a livable home. If you would like to be the chapter that gives a family in need a new house—a new life—click here to make it happen.
At first impression, Ruth Alfaro appeared physically healthy and strong. She is a mother of two grown kids and a happily married housewife. Ruth graciously welcomed us into her home, which is situated atop the hills of Nueva Esperanza in Villa Maria, along the outer edges of Lima. We sat comfortably on her couches as we made our introductions while her very excited dog and cat ran afoot. It was not until Ruth stared to talk about her heath that the urgency of her situation became clearer.
Ruth sat in a straight-backed chair against her living room wall as we concluded the transitional chitchat into our intended conversation: a discussion about Ruth’s recently discovered ailment. As the conversation began she grew visibly solemner in her demeanor, a reflection of her worry for herself and her family. We listened intently as she started to open up and tell her story.
Forty-four year-old Ruth first came in contact with MEDLIFE in March of 2014 at a mobile clinic held near her neighborhood. At the clinic she received one of the routine mammograms MEDLIFE provides for clinic visitors; this was Ruth’s very first mammogram, and her first medical check-up in a very long time.
The mammogram revealed a growth in Ruth’s right breast, one that the doctors considered suspicious. The growth was not diagnosable from the single exam; it could be something benign, or it could be cancerous—the doctors were unsure. Her case required follow-up mammograms, ultrasounds and potentially a biopsy; all medical treatment that far exceeds Ruth’s financial affordances and health care access.
Ruth’s husband supports the family of four with the money earned from very inconsistent construction work. He was at a construction job when we met with Ruth, but she said the work comes and goes. The spacious house in which they live is unfortunately not one of the family’s assets; it is rented from Ruth’s uncle. On top off their financial obstacles, a strike at the local hospital has further complicated Ruth’s medical situation. Doctors have not worked for months, and unless it’s an emergency visit, no one is able to access medical help.
The recent strike is not these communities’ most significant obstacle related to health care. Unfortunately, Ruth and many women living in impoverished communities in Lima lack basic knowledge about common women’s health complications like cervical cancer and breast cancer. At mobile clinics, MEDLIFE provides women’s health exams like pap smears and mammograms to detect medical issues early. Women in the communities where MEDLIFE works do not normally undergo self-breast examinations, routine pap smears, and other preventative medical care due to their lack of resources and health education.
The inability to access medical care has proved to be a significant problem in Nueva Esperanza. This is especially true for Ruth and her husband, who both have chronic conditions that require frequent medical attention. Ruth suffers from a chronic cystitis, or a reoccurring urinary infection, which she explains puts her in severe discomfort every day. Her husband also has numerous chronic conditions, but cannot be seen by a doctor until they return from strike. Despite these preexisting health issues, Ruth rattled them off in passing conversation compared to our discussion about her more recent situation, for which she is most concerned. “I am very scared for my health—and for my family,” Ruth admitted.
Due to Ruth’s financial limitations and the potential severity of her situation, MEDLIFE has continuously supported her through the follow-up mammogram tests, ultrasounds, and other medical appointments to determine and diagnose her problem. Unfortunately, her secondary exams were as inconclusive as the first; the growth in her breast is rare and difficult to detect. The uncertainty makes Ruth feel even more unsettled than the knowledge of her medical issue.
We eventually drifted away from talking about her health to lighten the mood and to learn a little more about Ruth’s daily life. She explained that she is partial to cooking arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and bonding with her family over good conversation. She added, however, that normally happy moments have recently been tainted by her worry that she is unhealthy; it’s difficult to rid her thoughts of the looming diagnosis.
As Ruth’s condition stands now, doctors are still uncertain about the growth in her breasts, but they’re working on identifying the root of the problem and the proper medical treatment to eradicate it. Despite Ruth’s frustration with the limbo her medical situation hangs in, she expressed her gratitude for MEDLIFE’s support. One of MEDLIFE’s nurses, Janet, has accompanied Ruth to her appointments, and we will continue to support her in various ways through the process.
Upon departing Ruth’s house, we could see immediate relief in her eyes, which contrasted her visible hesitation and timid demeanor we observed at the beginning of our visit. Her relief was not for anything we had accomplished, but simply for our presence at her house. We represented a sign of support and that a resolution of her trials is within reach.
I always told myself that I wouldn’t be able to live in a large city. The idea was too much for me to comprehend: millions of people cruising the bustling streets on a land so extensive I couldn’t possibly know it all. So how did I then end up living in one of the largest cities in the world, you may ask? To be honest, beats me. Lima, alone, wasn’t necessarily calling my name—even while I became a frozen popsicle in the cold Michigan weather. However, MEDLIFE’s mission was definitely a siren call in and of itself.
Since arriving to Lima, adjusting to city life has been an adventure to say the least. The lifestyle I left behind is quite different from what I am currently living, and truthfully, I am loving every minute of it. I came here for the fulfilling work that MEDLIFE provides and found a city filled with passion, pride, and heart. Peru has a vivacious culture bursting with delicious food, energetic dancing, and adventurous activities that are all fueled by everyday people trying to make and enjoy a living. My background in traveling has allowed me to experience the country and the more electric aspects of Lima life, but my involvement with MEDLIFE has given me the opportunity to find the heart of the country and explore the social issues endemic to this region.
On my first patient call, I accompanied one of our nurses to visit a bright, young eleven-year-old boy named Gino. Gino has been plagued by health issues for the past three years. He beat cancer with the help of chemotherapy, but the radiation caused additional health complications. Despite all the trials and tribulations he and his family have endured, this brilliant boy had the most beautiful and genuine smile I have ever seen, one that spread from ear to ear. His illuminating grin simply radiated happiness and shone brightly despite his seemingly shy demeanour. Seeing the sheer resilience present in Gino, in the face of his many health challenges, further reminded me of how the good, amidst the hardest trails of life, is still present and working in the world, and MEDLIFE helps to make that possible.
It’s so easy to get caught up in your own little world, to start thinking about what only affects you personally, when there is so much more happening all around us. Even when I get distracted by my life in Lima, MEDLIFE grounds me to what truly matters. I am able to learn more about what systemic issues many citizens face and realize that there is a greater adversity people have to endure on a daily basis, challenges I can’t even begin to fully comprehend. However, MEDLIFE reminds me that I am here to help in whatever capacity I can. I am here to be a part of an organization that is much greater and larger than myself; one that works toward relieving current pain, correcting future issues, and lending an empathetic ear to the struggles of the people we serve.
One of the most grounding moments so far in my time with MEDLIFE has been my experience with another follow-up patient, Julio Rivera. Twenty six-year-old Julio had not left his house in eight years. That is not an exaggeration and I am not overstating his condition. For eight years, he has been practically trapped in his one-bedroom home, mourning the sudden loss of his mobility. Many years ago, he started to experience pain in his spine that made walking difficult; lacking access to adequate care, Julio slowly began to lose movement. Julio lives on top of a cerro (hill), which requires him to climb down a staircase to even leave his house; he would then have to continue down a multi-sloped, extremely steeped hill to simply access a main road. His debilitating and unknown illness, geographical location, and socioeconomic status made it impossible for him to even see the daylight—let alone a doctor—for far too long. After hearing about Julio’s condition, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team that assisted him in leaving his house for the first time in eight years so that he could receive proper medical treatment.
Julio’s nervous smile while taking pictures of the outside world, was thrilling to watch. This was a man filled with so much depression about his situation who was suddenly seeing a small light at the end of a very dark and long tunnel. Escorting Julio to the doctors was a profound experience; hearing that with hard work and a lot of therapy he might be able to move on his own again, caused a united sigh of relief. Being a part of an organization that can make the seemingly impossible, possible for so many families who have lost hope, is moving and incredibly rewarding.
My time in Lima so far has shown me the importance of doing what you can do today to help relieve the situation of another. At times I feel like I am not doing enough, because there is so much more to be done. However, what I have is time; so, time is what I can give in order for MEDLIFE to, little by little, shoulder some of the burden these families carry on a daily basis. The mission is not about rebuilding a whole new system, but slowly redefining how people can move within said system. We are not moving mountains, but we are giving people the ability to chisel away at their own cerros.
I may have previously envisioned my life away from the fast paced energy of a large city, but I couldn’t imagine spending my year anywhere else. The MEDLIFE mission drew me here, enticed me with its opportunities and chances, but the welcoming people I have found in Lima, through the work MEDLIFE does, is what continues to anchor me to this beautiful and vibrant city.
Before arriving at Gino’s home, Janet, one of the MEDLIFE field nurses, told us a little about him, “he has the biggest, most lovely smile,” she promised. On meeting Gino his smile is certainly the first thing you notice; it could brighten anyone’s day.
Gino and his mom welcomed us into their home situated in Villa Maria, an area in the outskirts of Lima. The home is shared with Gino’s Dad, brother, sister, and nephew. They’ve lived in their home for a number of years, which is just over the road from where Gino went to Primary school. However in 2011 when Gino was nine, their lives took a turn after his parents noticed their son wasn’t feeling well.
Gino’s illness started with a cough, and his family thought that it was asthma or allergies. Their assumptions proved wrong when Gino’s symptoms only seemed to worsen over the course of three months. Along with the cough, Gino had a growth on the side of his neck, his parents didn’t think anything of it at first, as it wasn’t causing Gino obvious harm, but still, they kept an eye on it.
Then, one evening, Gino’s face turned purple and his family rushed him to the hospital. Once in the hospital, Gino fell into a coma in which he stayed for a week. “We thought he was dead, we lost all hope,” his mother admitted.
Then, miraculously, he started moving his hands and soon regained consciousness. Once Gino woke, the hospital ran a number of tests on him to find the cause of the problems. They discovered that Gino had ganglion cancer—cancer of his glands.
On finding out this news, Gino was registered to get chemotherapy. He was in and out of the hospital to receive treatment for next two years of this young life. The chemotherapy was eventually a success; Gino was cancer free.
The beginning of his cancer-free life unfortunately bore bad news: the chemotherapy caused an infection in his intestines, one that requires an operation to cure. This is only possible once there has been some regrowth of the intestinal wall, otherwise it could lead to further complications and infections.
Gino’s intestinal infection causes him to need a colostomy bag to pass bowel movements. Despite these hardships, the damaged areas of Gino’s intestines have started to show signs of regrowth, which has enabled the doctors to estimate that the operation on his intestines can happen in January 2015. The operation will mean Gino will no longer need to use the colostomy bag, which means he will be one step closer to returning to a normal life—he will finally be able to return to school again.
Unlike most kids his age, Gino told us he loves school, and especially learning English. Since first going into the hospital he hasn’t been able to attend school due to his pain and discomfort. His mom told us proudly he was a very bright boy and often got the top grades in his year, making the fact he’s missed so much schooling even harder to bear. Knowing Gino will be able to return to school again is a great relief for the family, who for a long time thought that this would never be the case. His mom explained that the hardest part of the entire process for her and Gino’s father was the beginning: the not knowing what was wrong and not being able to believe that their son had cancer, every parent’s worst nightmare.
Though it’s been a rough three years for the family and things are starting to look up, Gino’s family is still in need of some MEDLIFE support. Despite Gino’s improving condition, the regular hospital visits and the need for Gino to have constant care has prevented his mom from continuing her job as a food vendor. This has put even more financial strain on the family, which lives in one of the poorest parts of Lima.
The costs of Gino’s unexpected illnesses have become unsustainable for his family. The family’s biggest burden will not be Gino’s patiently awaited surgery in January, as it will be covered by insurance. Gino’s medical supplies until then stand as his family’s greatest financial obstacle. The cost of Gino’s colostomy bags alone – of which he needs three per day - will amount to $1,250 before his procedure in January.
Since meeting Gino, MEDLIFE has supported him by providing the critical medical supplies he needs; but we’re reaching out for assistance to alleviate some of the crucial costs until January. If you are interested in being a part of Gino’s story, click here to find out how you can help.
The University of Georgia’s MEDLIFE chapter has recently seen incredible growth and made notable achievements in their fourth year. This year, UGA was awarded second place for MEDLIFE’s “Best Chapter” in the MEDLIFE awards, and the chapter’s member count is on the rise. With more than 160 active members, UGA’s hard work and great effort have certainly made an impact on UGA’s campus and in the MEDLIFE community. Read the following interview with UGA to learn more about this MEDLIFE chapter, how they got their start, and what they’re doing for sustainable growth.
When and how did your chapter begin?
The MEDLIFE UGA Chapter was founded in Fall 2010 by Emily Peng and Kelsey Campolong. Our chapter started with 10 active members and now, four years later, it has expanded to a twelve-member executive board with a total member base of over 200 students. Our listserv has over 1,700 individuals subscribed and we maintain an active core of 90 to 100 members throughout the year. During the 2013-2014 academic year, our chapter was able to raise $4000 for the MEDFund and perform over 150 hours of local service in Athens, GA. Since our first trip in January 2011, we have sent over 100 UGA students on weeklong mobile clinics to Peru, Ecuador, and Tanzania, allowing them to obtain hands-on experience in shadowing doctors and providing health care abroad. Our mission is to provide sustainable aid to impoverished communities (both on a local and global scale) and to provide leadership and service opportunities to the students of the University of Georgia.
What strategies did you use to promote MEDLIFE on campus?
We utilize a variety of strategies to promote MEDLIFE on the UGA campus throughout the school year as well as during summer terms. One of the main ways that we get the word out about our organization at such a large university is through interactive events, such as the Fall and Spring Activities Fair, the Summer Orientations Fairs, and Interest Meetings. At these fairs, student organizations host a table along with all of their promotional materials. We have created an informative trifold board to help catch the eyes of students walking by during these events and provide visual evidence of the message of MEDLIFE. In addition to the wonderful posters, flyers, and handouts provided by National MEDLIFE, we also have created a general flyer to help advertise the work we do as a local chapter. Every semester we hold a General Interest Meeting in order to inform students about the work that MEDLIFE at UGA does both locally and abroad. We are usually able to gain a great deal of interest from both these meetings as well as the fairs we table at.
We also have increased our presence on social media sites such Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, in addition to creating our own website (www.medlifeatuga.com) hosted by Wordpress.com. As well, one of the most effective tools that we have used in the past to get the word about any of our events or general body meetings is the use of not only our own, but also other student organizations’ and department listservs. Emailing through various listservs all over campus has helped us reach out to students who may have never heard of MEDLIFE at UGA.
What system do you use to recruit new members? What process does a new member go through once part of the chapter?
Through tabling at Activities Fairs, hosting Interest Meetings at the start of every semester, passing out and posting flyers around campus, speaking in classrooms, and sending bi-weekly emails through various listservs, we are able to recruit new members. More generally, anytime that we host an event, no matter the size, we always urge our Executive Members and general body members to always reinforce MEDLIFE’s mission by spreading the word about all the great work we do as a chapter and as a national organization. As well, our chapter continuously seeks organizations on campus that share common interests and goals in order to partner with. As we form relationships with other organizations on the campus of the University of Georgia, we find that this is also a very effective way to gain new members.
Students are able to become members of MEDLIFE at UGA fairly easily. At every meeting, we have several general membership forms printed out for our prospective students to fill out at the time that they decide to pay their dues. This form helps us keep track of their name, major, year, and whether or not they are interested in attending a Mobile Clinic in the upcoming semester. Once a student becomes a member, their information is placed into our google document roster for that school year and then they are placed into a family group by our Internal Affairs Chair. Each member placed into a Family Group is assigned one of the ten Family Heads that the Executive Board has appointed. Within the Family Groups, Family Heads are responsible for maintaining attendance at each general meeting. Attendance is then sent to our Internal Affairs Chair. Members are encouraged by both the Executive Board as well as their Family Heads to attend service and fundraising events as well as mobile clinics.
What activities do you organize to keep your members interested throughout the year?
FUNDRAISERS: We host scarf and bake sales at the Tate Student Center on the UGA campus as well as the Athens West Broad Farmer's Market. We are also planning on hosting our fourth annual Benefit Concert at a local music venue here in Athens called Nuci’s Space on October 18, 2014. Our fourth annual 5K race for Global Health will take place in Spring 2015. All of the money we raise at any of these events is donated directly to the MEDFund to help provide medicine, education, and developmental projects in Latin America, Africa, and India.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: MEDLIFE at UGA, first and foremost is a service orientated organization. We aim to provide members the opportunity to go out and serve their nearby community here in Athens, GA. We volunteer at the local Food Bank that packages and delivers meals for families in need, organize clothing donations at the Project Safe Thrift Store, and partner with MedShare a nonprofit organization in Decatur, GA, that packages surplus medical supplies and sends it abroad to communities in need. As well, our chapter will be solely hosting its first ever blood drive on September 23, 2014. In addition, we plan to increase our partnerships with other local nonprofits such as Thomas Lay After School Program, Campus Kitchen at UGA, Mercy Health Center, Athens Area Homeless Shelter, and Casa de Amistad. This year, we are also applying for the 2014 Volunteer UGA Sustainability Service Grant in order to continue our efforts with Athens Nurses Clinic to help improve the quality of their current facility.
FAMILY GROUPS: We have selected ten Family Heads this year to serve as liaisons between the Executive Board and our general body members. This chapter initiative was started in Fall 2012 by our current Co-President, Zoheb Sulaiman. Through these groups, we maintain a communal, friendly environment, as our organization grows larger and we strive to create a more interactive line of communication between the board and chapter members. These family groups are divided randomly so that each group has a variety of ages and majors in hopes that natural mentoring relationships and networking within our member base will occur.
EDUCATION: For the past two years, we have invited professors from differing and unique disciplines to come share their passion and research with our members. Our global health lecture series allow us to create an environment to teach our members the importance of public health. For this semester, we have confirmed Dr. Colleen O’Brien Cherry (Global Health) and our wonderful faculty advisor, Dr. Maria Navarro (World Hunger and Development), to come speak. Moreover, we plan to have our 2nd annual Pre-Health Spotlight in Spring 2015, in which nursing students, public health graduate students, and medical students will come speak about their experiences and decision to enter their intended professional field.
MOBILE CLINICS:We send UGA students on year-round medical brigades to Peru, Ecuador, and Tanzania during winter, spring and summer breaks. They are able to volunteer with students from across the nation and work alongside local medical professionals to provide primary care services to individuals and families who otherwise lack access to quality health care. Students also work with local villagers and community leaders on community development projects, such as staircase building, hygiene projects, and mobile schools. As a chapter, we were able to increase the amount of students attending mobile clinics from approximately fifty total students from 2011 to 2013 to approximately eighty students during the 2013-2014 academic year. This year, we will be sending UGA students to Lima, Peru for Winter Break in December 2014, Cusco, Peru over Spring Break in March 2015, Moshi, Tanzania in May 2015, and Esmeraldas, Ecuador in August 2015.
What are your goals as a chapter for this academic year (2014-2015)?
We would like to achieve six broad goals for this school year:
Norma Evas lives in a small, remote village about two-and-a-half hours outside of Riobamba, Ecuador. Young Norma is only seven years old and is now in her third year of primary school. We first met her and her family at a MEDLIFE mobile clinic held in Pachamama, where she had her first check up with a MEDLIFE doctor. Norma was very shy, as many people are from her community; they are sometimes hesitant to receive medical care from people outside of their culture.
During Norma’s check-up at the MEDLIFE mobile clinic, one of the doctors discovered she had a potentially serious heart condition and would need to be seen by a cardiologist. However, Norma’s parents were reluctant to have her receive modern medical care because of their belief in alternative, spiritual kinds of medicine; they were concerned the doctors would do her harm. Norma seemed scared and did not understand what was going on.
Despite their initial objections, Norma’s parents were ultimately convinced to accept our help, and MEDLIFE brought her to the local hospital in Alausí. When her situation proved more intensive than what the local hospital had resources for, they transferred Norma to a larger one in Riobamba. There, Norma underwent several additional medical exams to assess her heart condition. However, her case proved so complex that she had to be transferred—yet again—to a hospital in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. It was there that she received her final diagnosis: Tricuspid regurgitation and patent ductus arteriosus.
Her disorders, congenital defects she had from birth, prevented her heart’s valves from closing properly, allowing blood to leak backwards against the direction it is supposed to flow. Left unattended, Norma’s conditions could have been severely damaging. A doctor told Martha, the MEDLIFE representative on Norma’s case that without the surgery Norma may one day go to bed and not wake up. She needed surgery to survive.
Norma’s family did not have any financial resources to fall back on when her condition was discovered. Coming from a large family, Norma is the seventh of eight children and money is very tight. An even greater obstacle was Norma’s parents’ lack of understanding the serious consequences of her disorder. It is important to note that Norma’s culture does not typically place importance on medical conditions that are not visibly pressing. Additionally, in their culture priority is given to tending to the agricultural work and to the sons of the family.
As a result of this, her parents provided very little support during the process; her mother accompanied Norma only to the first medical appointment, and her father stayed home to work and make money. Though it was difficult to garner the support of her parents, Norma’s saving grace was her twenty-four year old brother, Luis, who stayed by her side the entire time and took two weeks off from work to support his sister.
During their interactions with Norma’s family, MEDLIFE’s staff also discovered a history of fatal cardiac conditions. A check-up with Norma’s older cousin at a MEDLIFE mobile clinic had revealed an irregularity similar to Norma’s. Additionally, another cousin had passed away at eighteen years old; she died in her sleep, similar to what the doctors said could happen to Norma without an operation. Her family explained that they attribute Norma’s cousin’s death to spiritual reasons—that the mountains took her life.
Despite these hardships, Norma had her surgery the first week in September. During the operation doctors discovered an additional defect—a severe one, which was damaging Norma’s lungs. Both issues were addressed, and it was a successful surgery; her heart is now healthy and strong!
MEDLIFE helped Norma receive the medical care she needed from start to finish: her initial check up, the surgery, and other critical support like medicine and transportation to the hospitals. Norma is currently safe at home in her rural community, and will be returning to Quito for a follow-up appointment in six months, to which MEDLIFE will accompany her. We will be following Norma’s case and look forward to watching her continue to live a happy and healthy life.