December 11, 2014 12:26 pm

Charlie Hartley's Intern Journal

Written by Charlie Hartley

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:

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

December 2, 2014 2:33 pm

Julie Ma's Intern Journal

Written by Julie Ma

My first experience in Lima, Peru did not begin with the MEDLIFE internship, but with a study abroad program during the summer of 2013. After taking many of the Spanish classes offered at my university, I decided the next step was full immersion in a Spanish speaking culture to become fluent.

I experienced culture shock from the minute I landed at the airport Lima. Beginning with a sea of unfamiliar faces and swarming “taxistas” wanting to offer me their services, I had a feeling my time in Peru would be challenging, but interesting to say the least.

With freedom to explore Lima and Peruvian culture as I studied, it soon became apparent how much poverty truly exists and how much of a need there is for help. With this realization, my perspective of Lima and my study abroad experience shifted from an opportunity for cultural exploration, to a desire to help combat social issues that came into my view.

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When I searched for internships the following year, I came across MEDLIFE and knew I had to get involved in some way. The internship appealed to me for many reasons. The MEDIFE mission statement sealed the deal for me, as it resonated with my personal beliefs and the values: health is a basic human right, and it can be achieved through medicine, education, and development. The internship also allowed me to live abroad for a period much longer than the short term of my study abroad program, while also gaining relevant experience for my career. It was a no-brainer.

Though my second trip to Peru with a completely different purpose, the arrival in August of 2014 was just as exhilarating as the first time in 2013. Although I had no prior experience with MEDLIFE before applying for the internship, I was eager to learn and experience everything MEDLIFE has to offer and do the same in return.

In my first four months here, I have collected many humbling experiences and learned a lot from being out in the field. My experiences meeting follow-up patients, building staircases, speaking with an entire community about potential projects and clinics, and communicating with student participants who are just as dedicated and passionate about the mission as I am has been incredibly uplifting.

One exceptional experience that has stood out to me was constructing a staircase with the group of MEDLIFE interns and the community members of 33B, located within Villa Maria del Trifuno. Staircase constructions do not generally emerge in peoples' minds as useful projects that will benefit an entire community; I know it didn't for me. However, when interns go into the field—whether it's for a patient follow-up or to deliver Pap smear results from mobile clinics—Carlos and the nurses never fail to acknowledge the real danger of the steep hills many communities rest on. Carlos and the nurses point out the many red staircases MEDLIFE has built to combat this prevalent issue over the years, and it is a inspiring reminder of MEDLIFE's progress working in these communities.

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I never truly realized the importance of the staircases and the immense relief it provides in communities we work with until I heard testimonials of the people living there and the desperation in their voices during the nighttime meetings with them. People said they fear for the safety of the women, children and the elderly. Often times, the people of the community risk their lives many times a day just climbing up the hills to their homes. Women carry groceries or their children, and children face danger every day just in order to go to school. They do this in any and all weather conditions, health, and subject themselves to threatening falls in order to survive. They do this not because they want to, but because they do not have a choice, and they shouldn't have to live their lives this way.

Having fallen a few times myself, I know my minor slips are nothing compared to the treacherous journey of the community members. It's not an easy hike for many of the families in the hills and the dangerous conditions would not be suitable for anyone.

Participating in my first MEDLIFE staircase project was a rewarding and unique experience. It was gratifying to see progress from the start of a path of stones to a finished, chiseled, newly-paved staircase. I was thoroughly impressed with the teamwork and the comradery between MEDLIFE and the community members. We worked hand in hand, helping each other carry buckets of cement to fill the stairs then tossing the empty buckets back up uniformly. Before we knew it, we were finished and enjoying each other's company while we painted, planted trees, and enjoyed Inka Cola. All our hard work was celebrated in the inauguration of the staircase, the community and MEDLIFE full of smiles.

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Although these staircase projects among many MEDLIFE projects and clinics do not provide complete healing and safety, it is a step forward and is a means of alleviating the transportation dangers that comes with living in the slums of Lima. It's not a significant project but makes all the difference to the 300 habitants of 33B. As we left the hills that afternoon, we could see the vibrant red that shone through the slope, a sign of all our collaborative hard work, and we know there will be many more similar sights to come. This is only the beginning, and MEDLIFE's work carries on.

November 21, 2014 12:42 pm

Tom Stephens' Photo Journal

Written by Tom Stephens

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:

Tom-0013Patient follow-ups have been some of the most moving experiences in my MEDLIFE career. Witnessing the true test of unconditional love unfold before your eyes is a reflective experience.

Tom-0453The mobile clinic work that MEDLIFE undertakes has inspired me creatively in my documentary work.

Tom-2045The toothbrush station is one my favourite places to take photos on a mobile clinic. The children's smiles make the long days worthwhile.

Tom-2780Julio Pineda is one of the many patients that we keep in touch with through our patient follow up program. He lost his leg to diabetes 2 years ago.

Tom-2847Seeing the beaming faces of volunteers and employees on Inauguration day reveals the true passion that has gone into our development projects.

Tom-3726There is nothing more fulfilling than working on a development project in Lima when the sun is out.

Tom-4845Watching the final stages of Inauguration. The picture speaks for itself.

Tom-4846A portrait shot of Julio Rivera, another follow-up patient. Julio had not left his house for 8 years due to his illness. I was moved by being a part of his first journey out of his house.

Tom-5516I took this photo on a combi bus after spending a long day is the field — father and daughter resting together after a long day.

Tom-6456This photo was taken in hills outside Lima: 6pm on a Friday evening after an education workshop. There is a hidden beauty to this poverty stricken reality.

October 28, 2014 10:16 am

Nikita Gupta's Intern Journal

Written by Nikita Gupta

Nikita2As 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.

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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.

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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.

October 1, 2014 11:13 am

Clare Lilek's Intern Journal

Written by Clare Lilek

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.

Clare LimaShore

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.

Clare Julio

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.

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