Medicine & Healthcare in Bolivia by Maya Block
When I came across the Projects Abroad website, the headline Short-term Special: Medicine immediately caught my attention. After reading and re-reading the description a few times I was blown away. Working in the medical field was always something that I was interested in. However, exposure to this field is something difficult to find in the US, especially at my age.
The idea of getting this unique experience while being fully immersed in another culture was incredibly compelling to me. Without having to give it much thought, I decided that this was something that I was going to do. I studied Spanish for many years throughout school, so I knew I wanted to visit a country where I could put my education to the ultimate test. Bolivia seemed like the perfect destination.
I don’t think any experience can compare to the two weeks I spent in Bolivia. Coming into the trip, I had high expectations; however I had not anticipated that my expectations would be completely blown away.
Volunteering in Bolivia
Rocio and Freddy were our project coordinators. Rocio is just the kindest, warmest person you will meet while Freddy is so fun and full of energy. Both were incredibly wonderful and worked very hard to make our trip the best that it could be. One of the best parts of my trip was getting to know my host family. In total, there were about 10 volunteers, including me. We were split into 2 homes. I, along with my best friend and 2 other girls, stayed with the most amazing family. Being fully immersed in the Latin American culture, they took us in with open arms and treated us like we were a part of the family.
The parents were so generous and cooked the best meals. I also had 2 host brothers and a sister. It was the best feeling to come home and see Juan Pablo and Gabriel waiting by the door to hang out with us. Together, we all stayed up late watching movies, playing card games, going out for ice-cream, having dance parties as we blasted music from our phones, and just talking together in Spanish. We even got to go to Juan Pablo’s soccer game and visit the city centre with the family. I am still in touch with the boys and talk to them over Facebook all the time.
My medical placement
Definitely the highlight of my trip was the unbelievable itinerary. Everyday brought a new adventure and something to learn. Throughout the trip, we were taken to three different hospitals. The first one we visited was called Harry Williams. Here, I was placed in the ER where I got to observe multiple procedures and check-ups. These included stitches, EKGs, casts being put on, drains being cleaned, biopsies, irrigation of wounds, and so much more. On the way back to our temporary homes, the car ride was bubbling with excitement as we each shared our thrilling observations and experiences. We went back a few times.
My favourite hospital was next, Hospital Solomon Klein. This was a women and children’s hospital but it also treated patients in the ER. We started off by having a lesson on performing stitches, given by Dr. León. He demonstrated different techniques and ways of executing the stitches depending on the type of laceration. At the end of the lesson, we all got to practice on chicken feet. Next, Dr. León gave us a tour of the hospital.
At the end of the tour, he asked my friend and me if we wanted to stay overnight and get a real feel for what he does. Without thinking twice, I accepted and became immediately filled with excitement. It was settled; we were all split in two groups so that everyone would get a chance to stay the night before the trip was over. My friend, another girl and I were first. For the most part we stayed in the ER.
There was so much to see. We watched a little boy get stitches on his head, a laceration caused by a nasty dog bite. It was cool to watch the stitches, as we had just learned to do them ourselves. I also loved how the doctors took the time to explain each and everything they were doing and why they were doing it. We also observed a man who had just been in a fight get cleaned and stitched up.
Later, a woman came in who needed to be transferred to another hospital. Dr. León invited me to come with them to transfer her. To my amazement, this meant I got to ride with them in an ambulance. The ride was thrilling, as the driver broke the speed limit to get the women to the care she needed. At 1:00am the doctors brought us to the on-call room where we got to hang out with the other doctors. It was here, in the middle of the night, lying on the bottom bunk bed in the on-call room that I decided, without a doubt, that I wanted to pursue medicine and someday become a doctor.
Hospital Viedma was the third hospital we visited. This hospital is well known for its dedication to the treatment of children in the paediatric burn unit. It was just completely humbling and any problems I thought I had simply disappeared. There was a young boy, Benjamin, who lay on one of the beds. His whole body was covered in burns. I sat with him for a couple hours, stroking his head and holding his hand. We had a strong connection and I still think about him all the time. It was truly a profound experience, further solidifying my desire to become a doctor. I feel like I definitely grew from that moment. Later we got to visit some kids in a burn rehabilitation centre, so it was nice to see some of the kids recovering from their horrible injuries.
In addition to all the days spent at the hospital, as volunteers, we also got some training from several health care professionals. We were taught how to administer injections, dress wounds, take vital signs, triage patients and learned some medical terminology. We were also able to visit a dentist’s office and got to watch an oral surgery. Finally, Freddy and Rocio even took us to meet a doctor who practiced alternative medicine and shared with us some of his popular remedies. I gained so much knowledge throughout the trip.
Aside from the medical experiences, Freddy planned some cool adventures for us. During the weekend, we were taken to Tiahuanaco, an impressive archaeological site, and Copacabana, a cute town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Here we also took a long hike while enjoying the beautiful view of the great lake. Freddy also organised a volleyball tournament between the volunteers and it was nice because Gabriel and Helen (my host brother and sister) joined us.
Other activities included watching the parade celebrating Bolivian Independence Day and some trips to La Cancha, the local market. At the end of our trip, the Projects Abroad staff organized a going-away party full of food, music, and traditional Bolivian dancing, the perfect end to the perfect trip.
For me, it’s not a question of if I will go back, rather when I will go back. And the answer is, hopefully soon! For anyone considering signing up, I strongly recommend going for it. Like I said, it was the best trip I have ever been on.
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