Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with VIDA in Guatemala?
Sonam: This trip provided me with the unique opportunity to witness health care in areas of the world I have not travelled to. I’ve never had the chance to travel anywhere outside of Canada or the United States and thought this would be an amazing opportunity to not only travel but help others at the same time. There is something extra special about going down in person to help out; getting to see the difference you make first hand.
Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Sonam: As a volunteer, we had a variety of jobs throughout the day. First off, we would set up and pack up the clinics. This would include gathering chairs, taking out supplies, setting up the pharmacy etc. The clinics took place in houses and public buildings offered to us by the citizens of the village. After setting up the clinic area, we would work in groups seeing patients and their families. Our main responsibility was to take their vital signs (heart rate, blood pressure, weight etc) and patient history. A translator was provided to each group through which we could communicate to the patient. Once we had gathered the vitals and history, we would call over one of the working doctors to overlook the information and provide the patient with a diagnosis and a prescription, if required. If the patient was prescribed medication, they would be able to obtain their medication free of charge from our pharmacy. Aside from seeing patients, each volunteer had an opportunity to work in the pharmacy with a doctor filling patient prescriptions. A typical clinic day would look as follows.
What made this volunteer abroad experience unique and special?
Sonam: It was the people! The VIDA in program in Guatemala was well run and organized, however, it was the people who made this experience one I will never forget. I grew so close to not only my fellow students, but to the staff accompanying us (doctors, translators and trip leaders). I remember the endless jokes being passed around in the bus on the rides to and from the clinics, waking up at 4am with some of the staff to see the sun rise over lake Atitlan while dancing until 3am in Panajachel the night before. It didn’t feel like there was a distinction between student and staff, but rather everyone came together as one unit and enjoyed being in each other’s company. Believe it or not, a year later, I’m still in close contact with many of them.
How has this experience impacted your future?
Sonam: This experience was an eye opener to say the least. During my time with VIDA in Guatemala, I first handily got to experience the consequences of inadequate health care. I was exposed to severe illnesses such as breast cancer in a man, an arrhythmia in a twelve-year-old girl and the end stages of leukemia in a seven-year-old boy. I specifically remember an older woman who came into the clinic complaining of severe stomach pains thinking she had a minor infection.
After assessment, we discovered that she had also been rapidly losing weight and vomiting frequently. Due to her presentation, the doctor believed that she may have gastrointestinal cancer and informed her that she needed to go to the hospital immediately. As the patient was being informed, I saw the smile on her face fade away and the look of worry emerge in her eyes. I found myself in that moment, wishing that I had the knowledge and ability to treat her. Although these realities were emotionally challenging, I was inspired by the resilience of these people and I left with a heightened sense of reality and sensitivity. It was during this trip I began to understand what it feels like to make a difference, to give people hope, to be a doctor!