Alumni Spotlight: Stephanie Hart

Stephanie Hart is from Greenwich, CT and is currently in the Post Bac Premedical Program at Columbia University. She enjoys sailing, squash, and volunteering in Nicaragua!

What inspired you to volunteer abroad with VIDA in Nicaragua?

Stephanie: I decided to volunteer abroad with VIDA for several reasons.

First of all, I knew I wanted to volunteer abroad to work with underserved communities, preferably in a Spanish speaking country since I have studied the language most of my life.

I hoped that my understanding of the language and general knowledge about the culture would help me better relate to the patients I would be working with.

Second, I had spoken to many volunteers who had previously been on VIDA trips (as well as read multiple reviews on the website) and the stories I heard were absolutely inspiring.

Third, VIDA not only offers the clinical training and patient interactions I was looking for, but also a culturally enriching experience in which we were able to immerse ourselves into the Nicaraguan culture through our time in the home stays.

I feel like my volunteer group got a better sense of what it is actually like to live in Nicaragua and the patients we saw appreciated the fact that we were living amongst them.

This experience allowed us to get a better sense of the hardships our patients face in daily life and ultimately helped us to provide them with a higher quality of health care and disease prevention techniques.

What was the best moment of the trip?

Stephanie: Honestly, there were so many great moments on this trip, it is hard to think of the “best.”

Some of my favorite experiences involved meeting different patients and hearing about their lives. The biggest hurdle we had to get past was the fact that we were strangers to these patients, and we needed to find a meaningful way to connect with them in order to provide them with the best care possible. The best moments usually involved getting past our differences and relating to patients on a personal basis.

One man who came into the clinic one day was a soldier in the Nicaraguan civil war. After initially being a little cautious in opening up to us because we were strangers and he may have thought we were only interested in his current medical condition, he soon realized that we were very interested to hear more about his life history.

The conversation started with a little hesitance, but we quickly got to joking and wound up having a great conversation about his time in the war. He was also more than happy to show us all of his battle wounds and tell us the accompanying heroic tale of how he wound up with each scar.

This experience was really enlightening and meaningful because it forced us as volunteers to realize that although we have good intentions, it can be a little scary for the locals to open up to us immediately because they may fear we will judge them.

We all quickly learned that a big smile and having a conversation with our patients rather than a “medical interrogation” was the best way to get through to our patients and have the most meaningful patient contact.

If you change one thing about your experience, what would it be?

Stephanie: During our trip we traveled to Managua, Leon, Granada, and Masaya all in the span of 12 days.

It was a little intimidating moving from place to place so quickly. I probably would rather have spent some additional time in each place to really get to know each of the communities a little better.

There were a few clinic sites that we were only able to work at one day just because of time constraints – I think I would have preferred spending some additional days at each clinic site. This could be solved by extending the length of the trip.

Tell us about one person you met.

Stephanie: My homestay family was one of the biggest highlights of the trip. Before this trip I had never lived with a host family before and was a little nervous at first because I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.

My homestay mother, Yelba, was absolutely fantastic. Our first day in Masaya, she and her two daughters took us on a tour of the city. She showed us the local markets, fun places to get traditional Nicaraguan cuisine, and some of the local sights (including lakes and active volcanoes.)

She did a terrific job of making us feel like part of her family. Every day she cooked us traditional cuisine and was so interested in both sharing her culture with us as well as learning about our culture here in the United States. We all really enjoyed living with the family and surprisingly did not have any difficulty with the language barrier.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Stephanie: My experience in Nicaragua definitely affected some of my future plans.

In the near future I plan to attend medical school. Now, in my search of my “top” school, I am looking for a medical school program that will allow me to go abroad (preferably for an extended time period.)

From this experience, I have become interested in learning more about underserved populations, both in foreign countries as well as domestically. This experience definitely helped me grow as an individual and taught me how to create a rapport with patients by finding common ground despite our differences. This is one of the most valuable lessons I learned during the trip that will stay with me throughout my future career as a doctor.

I think it will allow me to be a better doctor than those who have not had this type of experience.