Julia Heller is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Lima, Peru.
Even though I feel like my major and future career track change every five seconds, I currently have aspirations to attend grad school to become a physician assistant (stay tuned because I will probably want to be a chef by the end of this blog). I patted myself on the back when I got my white lab coat because I didn’t even have to go through four years of medical school nor grad school for it. There’s much more beyond the glitz and the glam of the medical field that many experience through the infamous television show Grey’s Anatomy (even though we all secretly love binge watching it). There are not enough seasons of Grey’s nor enough prior clinical experiences that could have prepared me for my experience at Caja de Agua in Lima, Peru.
Caja de Agua, one of the several clinics in Lima, took the six girls from the United States under their wings. They welcomed us with open arms; you could tell the second you entered the building that they were extremely grateful. We were immediately thrown into working and communicating with patients (Yes, I was terrified. Yes, you could totally see the pure fear I had in my eyes).
On my first day of working alongside the obstetrician, I got to venture through the surrounding community of Caja de Agua. The first thing I noticed were the bright yellow stairs that practically went up at a 180 degree angle that seemed to have no end. Let’s just say that I was out of breath just looking at them. I did not see nor did I understand the level of poverty within Caja de Agua until I stood at 05 de abril, one of the communities at the very top of the stairs. I saw four walls with no roofs, huts, houses along the mountainside, dust and dirt everywhere. I was truly shocked that not even an hour away from my comfortable bed in the beautiful city of Miraflores was complete poverty, houses with no floors and difficult access to healthcare.
I had a very similar humbling experience when I ventured to a nearby elementary school where I worked alongside one of the clinic’s dentists. We worked specifically with fifth grade students who were, to say the least, energetic (your typical fifth graders). Our goal was to educate children on dental hygiene and to give them fluoride. When the students saw our white lab coats, they were terrified and were asking, “Is this going to hurt?” or kept saying, “I’m so scared.” Myself and my peer finally understood that when the students saw the white lab coats they immediately thought of shots and pain. However, we were just applying fluoride to their teeth with cotton swabs (So no pain, right? Wrong.) Most of the students were panicking because their gums would start to get cold, which was normal. It was difficult to see ten-year-olds with black and yellow, decaying, and chipped teeth.
I ended up falling in love with the children and their personalities so I went back to the school and lectured the students about Tuberculosis and the vaccine. Without fail the students freaked out right when they saw the white lab coats (this of course was followed by several friendly “Hola” when they saw familiar faces. While the nurse was speaking with the students I had the pleasure to interact with the teachers. They were nothing short of grateful for our mere presence. They lit up and were so excited to see young educators wiling to lend a helping hand.
My experience at Caja de Agua was priceless. Before I stepped off the bus at the clinic I had no idea what to expect. I was, to say the least, terrified. But what I got out of this experience is something I will never be able to put on paper. Working with these patients, doctors, nurses, fathers, mothers, and teachers who are grateful for every and any help provided, from something as simple as starting a conversation about tuberculosis to something as mind-boggling as giving flu vaccines, fueled my desire to work and help those in underprivileged and impoverished communities and to give those without a voice a voice.
Thank you for all of the smiles, laughs, and more importantly, for teaching me more about myself than I could have ever asked for.
The world awaits…discover it.