August 6, 2015 3:12 pm

Intern Journal: Rolando Gerena

Written by Rolando Gerena

Peru. The country where the Spanish founded their empire and took over the Inca Empire. Having been in Lima for six weeks has put several things into perspective.  First off, the world is so large! The fact that I'm living in a city with over 3 million people is unbelievable. You see different faces everyday, whether on the street or on a bus. What's my point? That everyday in this city has potential. You can decide whether or not you want to make a name for yourself. You can assimilate with the culture, or you can stick to what makes you comfortable. You can enrich your life with positive experiences, or you can sit at home and go on social media. The possibilities are infinite, but it's for you to decide what it is that you want to get out of your stay.

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On one of the more recent mobile clinics, I was introduced to a daycare center called “Virgen del Buen Paso”. The UC Davis MEDLIFE chapter sponsored a project to repair the flooring and kitchen of the toddler area. The principal, Blanca, took us class by class to meet the kids. The kids loved seeing us and were in awe when they discovered we were Americans! It just so happened that the lesson of the day was poetry. Not many people know this but writing poetry is a hobby of mine.  A few of the kids recited some of their poems, and then they asked if any of the volunteers wanted to recite. Nobody knew any! So I decided to recite one of my own.

After taking the daycare tour, we walked to the playground. It was ginormous! There were a group of kids playing in a small section of the playground while the rest remained unoccupied. At first I thought it was because the kids enjoyed playing in the smaller section but I was then told that the majority of the playground had been closed due to infrastructural concerns. The main wall surrounding the playground was old and deteriorating. When brushed, the concrete would flake off.

The principal mentioned that it would take lots of money to fix it but it was something that they'd look into in the future. This caught my attention but I didn't think much of it at the moment. That same night I sat down to write in my journal and reminisce on the week's events. I got this sudden rush of anxiety and all my mind could think of was that daycare wall. I wanted to do something I had never done before. I wanted to leave my mark in Peru. I think what pushed me to start my own project was when the principal called me the “angel de los niños” which translates to the angel of the kids. 

This is the part where I talk about my good friend Carlos Benavides. Carlos is the director of all MEDLIFE development projects in Peru so I had to meet with him to discuss my plans. We both concluded that repairing thiswall would be a great idea but we first needed an engineers opinion.

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And that's where I'm at today. Making small amounts of progress and getting closer to the bigger picture. If there's one thing I've learned about Peru, or life in general, it's that you can't get anything done on your own. Carlos proved to me that being successful is all about the quality of your network. You save time, money, and resources just by knowing the right people.

Instead of hiring an engineer for a few hundred dollars, Carlos called over a friend to do it for free.  Instead of purchasing thousands of dollars worth of cement, Carlos found a person that can provide it for free. Instead of waiting a month to meet with government officials to discuss our plans, Carlos was able to get an appointment for the same day. Carlos is the perfect example of a leader and team member. Carlos didn't meet this people from behind a desk or computer. He met these people by going out into the city and meeting people. By listening to what they have to say and giving them what they need. What do you get in return? A life with new meaning. So when I say that everyday you have the opportunity of meeting someone that can potentially change your life, I mean it. 

July 31, 2015 2:03 pm

Intern Journal: Leema John

Written by Leema John

"We won't have water for two days, starting tomorrow at nine o'clock AM."

My finger nearly became a part of the onion that I was cutting, as my knife dropped at the news that I had overheard.

"What? No running water for two whole days?" exclaimed another intern.

A thousand thoughts raced across the forefront of my mind. Since our apartment did not have a water tank for excess water storage, we would have absolutely no water to supply our needs.  How would I shower? How would I clean my growing pile of laundry? How would I live with twelve people, all limited to a single flush for each of the three toilets in the apartment? Because let's be real, we were all on Pepto Bismol.

Untitled1Precisely how I felt when I heard that I would not have access to running water.My qualms were quickly reassured with another claim of the night:  that there would be running water in the office, as the cut only affected the district that we lived in.  It was going to be alright-- I could have my toothbrush in tow to the office, and have pearly whites after a mysterious bathroom break.

The next morning, I filled up my water bottle with the last remaining bits of filtered water that my apartment would spit out for me for the next 36 hours. As I stepped into the office kitchen later that morning to stow away my lunch, my eyes feasted on an unusual array of colors. The floor was covered with multicolored buckets filled with water. I nervously glanced at the microwave clock. It was 8:04 AM.

I arrived to my desk listening to the fear that was settling into panic-- the district that our office was in, would be affected by the water cut as well. No running water here, either.  To be honest, I freaked out a little bit. How does one survive without running water? What do you do when your back up for running water needs to be backed up?

As the clock approached nine, so did my uneasiness. I had never tackled the issue of water cuts. The closest thing I could relate to was electricity cuts at my parents' childhood homes in India, which was a completely different game. At those routine 9 PM power cuts, I was never worried about being dehydrated or even unclean.

But I began to ponder about my work with MEDLIFE and the communities that we served.  A lot of the homes do not have running water, nonetheless access to it at all. I thought back to the community meeting that I had attended just that previous Friday with Señor Carlos and the rest of the Volunteer Affairs interns. On our trek down to the city center, he pointed out a portion of the area that was cloaked in darkness, as opposed to the gridded lights that illuminated the outskirts of Lima. He explained to us that this area was documented as an illegal settlement, as those who lived there did not have land titles to claim it as their own. Those settlers had moved to Lima nearly a year ago, and had to scavenge for water and pay spiked rates for electricity.

More often than not, the water that the people in pueblos jovenes ("shantytowns") receive are stored in old chemical waste containers because it's a cheaper alternative to the larger water tanks that are clean. This one tank of water is used for a family to cook, do laundry, bathe, and aid in personal hygiene. As the water tanks sit outside of homes with a flimsy tarp as a cover, they become prone to the bacteria that resides in the air. Burning garbage, human excrement, dog excrement, dirty diapers, and dirt all culminate into the air and rise to water-borne illnesses. I bore witness to this fact at a patient follow-up visit during hour 25 in my drought with water.

Untitled3A look at the water containers that are used to house water in los pueblos jovenes.I accompanied one of our field nurses, Janet, to a women's health clinic in Jesús María. Any patients that had irregular breast exams or pap smear results at the mobile clinic were brought to that clinic for their next round of care. I sat in the room, quietly listening to the initial consultation, trying to understand each patient's condition. After a few minutes of formalities and chatter, a young woman in her mid-twenties stepped into the room. We were told by the doctor that her irregular pap smear results were caused by a parasitic infection near the opening of her cervix, which had caused a large open wound and a source of great discomfort. The likely cause? Some form of water intake, most likely through washing of the body. Though her wound was cauterized and closed, it didn't solve the issue at hand-- access to clean and safe water.

As  I came upon hour thirty of my drought with water, I had already stopped at two bodegas, or convenience stores, to find no bottled water available for purchase. I also learned that the water cut had happened in all of the areas but the extremely wealthy ones. Though it was due to maintenance, we all joked that the Miraflores district paid the water company, Sedapal, from cutting the water in their district. Unfortunately, the role that money plays in accessing privilege is a reality for much of the world, Lima included.

I'm happy to announce that I survived the thirty-six hour run without running water. Looking back at it, I am a little embarrassed at my fears and anxieties about it. Putting your life in perspective to the conditions in the world is humbling, sparking a renewed sense of appreciation. The unknown is always intimidating and a bit scary, but can be morphed into a challenge for bettering yourself. My time in Lima has been incredibly challenging, but working through those hurdles has brought an immeasurable amount of growth and reward. My point: always remember to check your privilege, and keep the thirst for life alive!

Untitled2Overlooking the hills of Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the many areas that are a part of los pueblos jovenes.

July 24, 2015 2:01 pm

Intern Journal: Maggie Reilly

Written by Maggie Reilly

Yesterday, I tried surfing for the second time here in Lima.  This time was marginally better than the first, thanks to some calmer waves.  For a coordinated person, surfing is a tricky skill to pick up.  For a slightly klutzy person, as many of my friends would classify me, surfing seems near impossible.  The first time I went, my friends and I took a much too quick lesson then struggled barefoot along the rocky beach to the water and into the surf.  The further I paddled out into the water, the stronger the waves got.  It wasn't long before I was bracing myself at the sight of the larger oncoming waves.  They would come, flip me off of my board, and send me tumbling in a whirlwind of  water.  During these more violent waves, I couldn't tell which way was up.  All my senses were assaulted by salt and water and noise and force.  The only thing to do was let the wave take you and wait for it to spit you out, all while hoping your board didn't hit you in the head and you had enough air in your lungs.

Out there in the ocean, struggling to get back on my board before the next wave came, I was struck by a feeling that I do not often have: a lack of control.  I couldn't stop these waves, I couldn't get a break from them, and I was completely at their mercy. It was a scary feeling.  Unfortunately, this lack of control is a feeling that many people experiencing poverty have constantly.

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On a patient follow-up visit to a very marginalized area recently, I was confronted with this problem in an unforgettable way.  While waiting outside a small bodega with MEDLIFE staff for a follow-up patient, we encountered a woman who had come to wait for a phone call on the bodega's phone.  Upon closer inspection, this woman's body, especially her eyes, were tinted yellow.  Alarmed by this, the doctor asked if she needed medical care.  She said no, but explained what had led to her appearance.  Years ago, she had problems with her gallbladder, and had gone to the hospital to get it removed.  Shortly after, she began turning yellow.  When she went in for a scan, the medical professional had told her that she was missing a kidney.  The woman was shocked – she had never had problems with her kidneys before.  The MEDLIFE doctor told us that the surgeon for her gallbladder surgery had probably taken a kidney to sell.  I knew organ trafficking was a problem here, but it had never before presented itself to me in such an apparent way.  This woman must have felt so betrayed by the breach of her trust – an unfortunately not uncommon feeling towards medicine here.

Later, we heard more about the woman's story from a neighbor.  She had seven children.  The oldest was 20 years old, while the youngest was 1 year old.  The woman, with jaundice and missing a kidney and gallbladder, was probably not in the best health to be carrying children.  The nurse commented that she needed to be on birth control, or to tell her husband to stop getting her pregnant.  However, family planning is not often a process that most women here are involved in.  Some women try to hide birth control use, or but many simply do not use it and then find themselves with many children, often not by their own choice.  Finally, according to the neighbor, one of her daughters had stopped growing at age 6.  She was now 11, and unable to walk.  The doctor hypothesized that her daughter probably had polio. 

I was speechless after hearing this woman's story.  She had gone through organ trafficking, had many kids in an area that was extremely affected by poverty, and a daughter with polio – all of which could have been prevented.  How little control she must have felt over her situation, when wave after wave of negative circumstances hit her and her family.  These events in her life were effects of a larger, very complicated system.

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Working in the pueblos jovenes of Lima has illustrated to me the complexity of poverty.  It doesn't just come down to not having a job.  It's the political issues that lead people to mistrust their government, which has a history of violence and lack of support for its people, whether that's by not providing electricity or denying land rights.  It's the economic issues that force people to leave their farming lifestyles and move to a crowded shantytown.  It's the social issues, like sexism and violence in the home.  More than anything, it's a lack of control over one's situation. 

When I was surfing, I knew I could make the decision to get out of the water whenever I wanted.  Getting out was the only way to avoid the waves.  However people here and marginalized populations around the world can't simply leave their situations.  That's where MEDLIFE comes in.  We're working to help these people get out of their oceans of poverty, and onto more stable ground.  I'm sure the woman we met felt little control over her situation.  I want to change that and in working with MEDLIFE, I feel like I am – little by little and patient by patient.  My experiences here are formative and everlasting.  I know that I will leave this internship at the very least with a slightly better knowledge of surfing, but mainly with the desire to continue helping people affected by poverty leave their oceans of disadvantage and gain some control.

July 17, 2015 9:09 am

Intern Journal: Daniel Masin

Written by Daniel Masin

I look across the bustling city of Lima, Peru to the distant lights shining on the steep hillsides, which are crowded with small, tin-roof-covered houses.  The imagery of the green light from the novel The Great Gatsby and the faint sound of salsa music from a radio in a nearby house coalesce into a moment standing atop a hill in Pamplona Alta.

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I distinctly remember my first visit to Pamplona Alta, one of the communities on the outskirts of Lima where thousands live in a reality of no formal property rights, no easy access to clean water or quality health care, and extremely few financial resources.  MEDLIFE was hosting a mobile clinic, and I had the opportunity to observe a physician that day.  I noted the differences in his communication style compared to the physicians I had shadowed prior.  It was clear that he invested extraordinarily in the wellbeing of each patient, making sure to explain his thought processes and detail preventative measures going forward.  There is always a tendency to rush through patients, but he was pleased to take the time to answer all the questions each patient had.  We may have stayed an hour or two later that day, but he realized that his time was a small price to pay for the health of another.  I have shadowed numerous physicians in the U.S. and abroad, and the genuine concern that he possessed for his patients stands out to this day.

This theme is reaffirmed and apparent each day I work as an intern.  Whether he or she is a community health promoter, director of MED Programs, Volunteer Affairs Coordinator, operations specialist, or fellow Volunteer Affairs intern, every person I have met who works with MEDLIFE is truly empowered to proactively make a difference.  Here at MEDLIFE, this means furthering the mission of partnering with communities to provide improved access to medicine, education, and community development to low-income families across the globe. 

The magic of MEDLIFE is in the organization's ability to empower the individuals with which it interacts.  It is empowering students in MEDLIFE chapters across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico to organize mobile clinic trips and learn more about the root causes of the inequalities in health that exist.  It is empowering others to realize that their opinion matters and that they can make a difference, in their recognition that there are many people in this world that need organizations like MEDLIFE to keep working to help them.  By attending a community meeting last week, I learned that one of MEDLIFE's greatest achievements is empowering the communities with which it works. 

385-2-Daniel-MasinTogether: A student volunteer working hand-in-hand with a child from this community

A community meeting is an essential meeting that occurs several times before beginning any work on a development project and before mobile clinic logistics are solidified.  The other interns and I, along with Sr. Carlos Benavides, MEDLIFE's Director of MED Programs in Peru, walked into a meeting where 50 to 60 community members had already gathered, some sitting and some standing, to listen to us speak about MEDLIFE.  

385-3-Daniel-MasinCommunity meeting on June 12th

We had come to outline a proposal regarding a partnership and staircase project with that particular community.  As with any MEDLIFE staircase project, we would provide the construction supplies if the community members agreed to work together and alongside us by preparing the site for several weeks before students arrived to cement and decorate the staircase. One must look closely at the consequences of this decision.  Imagine a (common) situation of subsistence living, where each day's wage is solely used to purchase food for that person's family for that day, a situation that is especially difficult for single parents.  By participating in the project work, individuals forgo their income for an entire day or two. 

385-4-Daniel-MasinEsteban and I in Tena, Ecuador

After Carlos spoke, he asked the community to explain why they wanted staircases.  Several men and women stood up and articulated that the steep hillsides were dangerous for the old, the sick, the pregnant, and the young.  Each person, without fail, mentioned that these projects were not for them; the projects were for the future wellbeing of the community. 

After successfully organizing one project in unison with MEDLIFE, the community and its leaders are better equipped to address other projects that will perpetuate the wellbeing of their community.

The selflessness clearly portrayed that night, and many other instances throughout my experiences as a MEDLIFE mobile clinic participant and intern, continue to empower me.  I am inspired to become a competent, empathetic, and effective physician based on my experiences with the people in Lima and Tena.  I have learned that each person, no matter his or her cultural, political, or socioeconomic background, has a fascinating life story to tell, and one must simply ask the right questions in many cases.

Thick fog hovers below. The grandiosity of the hills sends shivers down my spine. Looking into the distance sends me into a whirlwind of emotion, the view is simultaneously the most beautiful and horrific thing I had ever seen. I find myself squinting, desperately trying to find the endpoint of the shantytowns that run up and down the hills before me.

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I've been in Lima, interning for MEDLIFE, for almost two months now. The shantytowns never seem to end, the number of patients pouring into the mobile clinics accumulates, and the white-board for follow-up care patients fills itself everyday. The task begins to seem intimidatingly big and impossible to complete. Despite these discouraging initial thoughts, working with MEDLIFE has altered my perspective in the best way. The small steps we take as volunteers, interns, leaders and health care professionals changes lives in big ways and remarkable progress has been made. Writing about my experiences over the last few weeks seems near impossible! It feels tremendously difficult to begin to find words that match the emotion I feel and to eloquently explain how life altering medical, educational and developmental projects can be, and have been, in the lives of our patients.  It is one thing to hear of poverty, and another to hear people's stories while sitting in their living rooms.  


Living in Lima has taught me to never expect things to be on time. My housemates and I all know better than to assume we will be leaving for a patient follow-up visit with one of our field nurses at the scheduled time. One must factor in at least twenty to thirty minutes later than said departure. This easy going and laid-back culture I find myself in is, once you get used to it, a very pleasant change. Having said this, the opportunity to go on these patient visit, has taught me that they are well worth the wait. They all begin similarly: a bus ride. Or make that multiple bus rides, “moto taxi” trips and train journeys. Upon arrival to a very impactful visit I went on, our field nurse Janet, like countless other times, pulls a patient's chart out from her MEDLIFE draw string bag and takes us up and down the hills, through unpaved roads and unmarked homes. How Janet finds the address we're looking for, perplexes me still. I make it a point to stop and breathe. I find myself having to do this multiple times a day.  

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After a few knocks at the patient's door with no answer, Janet moves into phase two: “señora!” she screams. “Señoraaaaaaaa!” Audible footsteps appear and a shabby door on loose hinges swings open. We are invited in by an elderly woman who, I learn soon after, was diagnosed with diabetes at one of our previous mobile clinics. Some of our initial concerns are raised very soon into the visit. Her home's infrastructure is shaky and the dirt ground is exposed. The makeshift walls let in beams of light. They create a display of rays that pierce through the dark, damp room in hundreds of directions. These issues only add to our patients existing health concerns. Another big concern is her diet. As we converse, she begins to tell us what she eats on a daily basis. Having a grandmother at home who has been diabetic for years, I know that our patients' list is worrisome. Her diet consists mostly of carb filled and starchy foods. These products are usually cheapest and most filling, something desirable in a context of poverty.

Janet decides that it would be a good time to take our patient's blood sugar level. The first test shows a blood sugar level of 320 mg/dL. A normal sugar level for someone with diabetes should be anywhere between 100 mg/dL to 140 mg/dL depending on food intake. This initial test seems very high, so Janet does another reading about ten minutes later: 435 mg/dL. Tension rises in the room and I am told that our patient is at very high risk of experiencing serious and irreversible damage to her body. High levels of glucose act as a poison, damaging the body's pancreas, kidneys, heart, arteries and nerves. Through the quick-paced Spanish, I decipher that, if her glucose level is not lowered, we will have to go to the hospital immediately. We wait three more minutes and test again. 382-3-leila-al-adlouniThis time, the machine reads a glucose level of 512 mg/dL. Before anyone can say anything else, we are gathering our patients' belongings and bringing her to the nearest hospital. Access is limited; we must get a taxi, as ambulances are expensive and unreliable. There are six of us including our patient, without any time to waste, we cram ourselvesin and head towards the closest building with insulin. The most disappointing and eye opening experience of that day was once we arrived at the hospital, we were told by two hopeless looking patients, that the emergency room was closed. This seemed absurd to me, how can an emergency room be closed? We speak to a doctor and he delivers us the worst news thus far; they don't have insulin. 

This story represents an example of lack of access. This is an arbitrary concept that includes poverty, injustice and deficiency. It was an overwhelmingly sad way of, for me, actually understanding what lack of access meant. It meant that our patient was not able to control her diabetes due to lack of access to a healthy diet, healthy living space, and tools to regulate her disease. It meant that our patient couldn't always get to a hospital, and when she did it meant that there was a lack of resources such as medications and staff. By some twisted way of faith, MEDLIFE was present that day, and was able to help that patient. She eventually got brought to a much larger, and further away, institute that did have access to insulin, and is doing well today.

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Being able to put my experiences of this internship in order in my head has been most challenging. Being able to a part of an organization that sustainably changes lives has been incredible. Being able to live in a city in South America has been exciting. Being able to share this experience with other interns and volunteers has been life changing. I leave this internship with an exhilarating motivation to take on whatever life has in store for me and to boldly plunge into helping end global social injustices.   

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