Global health has always been something that has motivated me to pursue medicine, dating back to my very first service trip my sophomore year of high school. With each opportunity to travel and serve I’m reminded of why I chose medicine and what I feel led to do with my life. My most recent trip to Quetzaltenango was no different. The experiences that I gained within that month will remain with me throughout my time at Vanderbilt and my career as a physician.
Working at Primeros Pasos for a month was the longest I had ever volunteered in another country, and it certainly made a difference having the medical knowledge that I’ve acquired in my first couple years as a Vanderbilt medical student. I was much more aware of the intricacies of the healthcare system and more capable of identifying areas where the system in Guatemala fails to provide care to many of its citizens. This allowed me to learn what healthcare looks like in another country, and it gave me an opportunity to compare it to healthcare in the U.S. where we also have great disparities. Certainly, in both countries the more money you make the greater your odds are of receiving quality care.
In my time volunteering both within and beyond U.S. borders I’ve had the opportunity to witness the sad reality of malnutrition and the persistence of curable and preventable diseases. However, we often forget these sad realities when we return home to our American “bubble”. Going out and serving in Quetzaltenango was a reminder of what it looks like to witness people that suffer from improper nutrition, unsafe working conditions, the constant struggle to provide daily for one’s family, and the lack of aid from the government in terms of health, clean water, social support and education.
Hearing various stories and feeling the enormous appreciation of each patient after tending to their needs is what continues to motivate me to pursue opportunities like serving at Primeros Pasos. One clearly palpable way in which this trip helped mold me into a better future physician is the valuable Spanish practice I received. Living with a Guatemalan family and working with Spanish-speaking patients was a full immersion experience and forced me to sharpen my skills especially my medical Spanish. Having a solid foundation in Spanish before arriving to Guatemala certainly helped and I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity to practice these skills with patients, Guatemalan medical students and physicians, and other people I encountered along the way. The ability to speak and provide care in Spanish is something that will serve me greatly in the U.S. as I care for patients from Spanish-speaking countries, and abroad where nearly 500 million people speak Spanish as their primary language.
Lastly, working at Primeros Pasos gave me a chance to see the inner workings of a non-profit clinic. In talking with the staff and working first-hand in the clinic I was able to see some of the difficulties such as patient follow-up, organizing and maintaining a pharmacy, patient records, etc. It’s easy to judge a system that may not work like you think it should, but it’s much harder to run one. It was a valuable experience that gave me insight into what it’s like if I ever choose to get involved with a similar clinic or start one myself.
Overall, my time in Quetzaltenango was incredible. It exposed me to a healthcare system both very different and very similar to our own. It fueled my passion for global health and validated what truly motivates me to want to serve as a doctor. It gave me the opportunity to enhance my medical Spanish. And lastly, it gave me an insider’s view of what it’s like to run a non-profit clinic for low-resource patients. I would absolutely recommend this trip to anyone interested in global health or service, and I think experiences like these should be something that all students have an opportunity to engage in.