Projects Abroad – Una Estancia En Argentina
With eagerness and trepidation, I peeled away the back of the envelope and became awash with disappointment and sadness. After having achieved excellent grades in my final school year and having had an interview at Medical School, I had not received a place to study Medicine in 2012. I was completely infuriated with the system, and did not have a clue what I would do with the whole year that I now had ahead.
Thankfully, after a prolonged browse on the internet, I came across Projects Abroad – an international volunteering organisation which takes volunteers aged 16-75 to developing countries all over the world. Immediately, I was intrigued. I saw that there would be an Information Evening in London later on in the month and decided that it would be for the best if I were to go along with my parents to find out more. This would later turn out to be one of the wisest decisions I had made in my eighteen years of living and breathing. After hearing an ex-volunteer speak of her experiences in Tanzania, I was so enticed that the disappointment of not going straight to university to study Medicine had fallen a long way into the past.
Returning home that evening, I leafed through Projects Abroad’s website and was finding it particularly difficult to whittle down my options as to where to go. Having studied Spanish at A-Level and having achieved an A, I thought it would be wise to put it to good use in the wider world and settled on South America. Having heard so much about the past-relationship between the UK and Argentina, I became fixated with the country and decided that it was the destination for me.
Credits cards out and application form completed, my adventure was nigh-on beginning.
In the build-up to leaving, Projects Abroad were in contact with me almost every week after having created a page for me on their website. This page listed everything from: a suggested itinerary to details about my host family and work placement. I also received calls from the Argentinean Team who wanted to make sure that I was not too nervous about coming and if I had any questions that I wanted to ask. It became immediately clear that Projects Abroad have been doing this for 21 years now and that they really are at the top of their game with awesome organisational skill!
Before I knew it, September 2012 had arrived and I was stood at check-in at Heathrow with my parents behind me (with a bottle of champagne in their hands about to celebrate my immanent departure I’m sure)! I flew from London to Madrid and caught my connection to Buenos Aires, before taking a bus into the city centre and catching a pan-Argentine coach to Córdoba.
I arrived in Córdoba absolutely devoid of even a morsel of energy, but brimming with excitement that I was in an entirely new environment a very long way away from home. I was met by my co-ordinator at the bus station, from where we travelled together by taxi to my host family’s house which was in the almost-centre of town. Stepping out of the taxi with all my luggage and standing at the gates to the house, I could feel my heart pounding through my skin and bone with anticipation as to finally meeting my new family!
My host mother, Elena, opened the front door and came to the gate, greeting me with the largest of large smiles and kissing me on both cheeks, wrapping her arms around me, welcoming me to her home and Argentina. I was not quite sure what had shocked me more: the all-embracing Argentine-stranger welcome or that my tiny host mother had managed to reach around my tall shoulders to hug me!
I can honestly say that I have never experienced such as high standard of hospitality quite like Argentine hospitality. My room was very spacious and the bed was unbelievable soft and comfortable – better than my bed back in the UK in fact! The food was unreal, and when Projects Abroad initially told me that Elena was a good cook, I did not realise that meant that she would be quite so good. I absolutely adore Argentinean food and local specialities, although I must confess, the inner-lining of a cow’s stomach was not quite so appealing! However, my host mother said to me from the beginning that if there was anything that I did not like the taste of, that I could always tell her and she would not make it for me again.
To give you an idea of what my relationship came to be with my host family, I have Skyped them every single week since returning from Argentina in February with updates as to what I am currently doing and what they are up to. My host parents, Pablo and Elena, and my host sisters, Daniela and Glenda are no longer my ‘host’ family, they are family. I have two mothers, two fathers, and three brothers and sisters who I love and care for more than anyone else in the world. And despite the distance between us, I know that I am just as welcome in their home as I am in my own.
The Argentinean Team who called me during the lead-up to my departure certainly did not fail to make an impression on me when I arrived. They are the coolest of cool! Made up of Argentineans and some internationals, they have all the knowledge that you could ever need. They organised weekly or bi-monthly socials for all of the volunteers to get together and share their experiences so far, and have a westernised chat! We international volunteers would regularly travel around the province with members of the team who were more than keen at showing off all the local area had to offer: waterfalls, breathtaking views and fabulous summertime weather!
As for my work placements, well, where do I begin?! Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to experience such a wide array of specialities and departments.
My medical journey began at the largest Paediatric Hospital in Córdoba - El Hospital de Niño Jesús. From the moment I arrived, the surgeons, anaesthetics and nurses welcomed me with that utter-Argentine embrace (hugs, kisses and more) and I was thrown head-first into surgery. Within just a few weeks and with my new name ‘English’ (as apparently Sam is a little difficult to remember), I was offered the opportunity to scrub-in and assist in operations. When Carolina, one of the most remarkable women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, asked me whether I would like to assist her, I honestly could not have described at that moment how I was feeling. I did not know whether I was worried about the hours that lay ahead, especially as I had no medical experience whatsoever, or whether I was excited about getting the opportunity to partake in something that students in the UK do not have until F1 or F2 training.
Making my first incision around the burn on the child’s scalp, I felt more concerned with doing a good job than I did thinking about the child, which upon reflection seems not only strange, but pretty-damn selfish. However, I think for the first time I discovered that ‘zone’ and ‘mode’ which medics go into when they are faced with a situation which holds such gravity that it is difficult to know in advance quite how you will cope.
Throughout the operation, Carolina instructed me as to what do and reassured me that I was doing excellently. I did however tell myself that I would instantly announce to her that I was not comfortable with continuing if the situation were to arise.
Returning home after that day, I was so overcome with emotion and sheer disbelief as to what I had just done, that I think I was high on life! My Argentine mother could not believe what I had done and told me that she had not previously had another volunteer do quite so much.
That operation was the first of many events to come that would inspire me for the rest of time. I quickly became accustomed to taking part in open-heart surgery, neurosurgery, amputation, resuscitation, intubation, anaesthetics and the all-round jaw-dropping-ness of Medicine. I knew within days of arriving in Argentina that Medicine would be the vocation that I would endeavour to study for the rest of my days on Earth.
Projects Abroad had provided me with not only an awesome work placement, but also with the most inspiring family to live with. Despite the fact that I was enjoying Paediatric Surgery, I had started to become hungry for more. I took it upon myself to speak to the medics whom I had become very close friends with, and asked them if they knew anyone who worked in A&E or trauma. One of the surgeons told me that he would text his friend that evening and ask whether it would be possible for me to come and work with him for a while.
The next morning, Calvo did not disappoint – his contact said that I would be able to start working with them the following day.
A&E was a whole new ball game. I had never experienced such organised drama and chaos in my life, and I fell in love with it there and then. Watching a team of so many doctors, nurses, anaesthetists and specialists absorb the symptoms and condition of the patient in front of them blew my mind and has fuelled my medical appetite to an extent to which I never knew possible.
One afternoon, Santí and I were sat outside of the main entrance to the hospital trying to cool down as it was a stifling 49°C in Córdoba on that particular summer’s day. As he took a large drag on his cigarette, a taxi flew up the ramp with its horn blaring and its driving screaming his lungs out – he had a reason to. The windscreen was concaved; the glass having imploded upon impact and the bonnet looking as if it had been beaten with metal poles for the last decade. But that was not what stunned me the most. What stunned me the most was the state of the man, or woman, lying on the back seat of the taxi haemorrhaging left, right and centre.
Santí and I roared for our colleagues to come quickly, and quickly did they come. The blood-soaked being was placed on a board and we ran into trauma with him in a frenzy of adrenaline and confusion. Covered in blood, Santí checked for a pulse but found no output. Nurses striped the unknown person of their clothes and began compressing the wounds with dressings in a bid to stop the bleeding. Medics began furious resuscitation on the gentleman and intubated him in a matter of seconds in a desperate attempt to claw back his life. Monitors were attached to his chest and the output machines switched on to give a graphic display of the flat-lined heart rate.
The pummelling continued, doctors and nurses taking alternate roles in efforts to try and salvage yet another life. *B-beep**B-beep**B-beep* went the monitors. “Gracias a Dios” uttered almost everyone under their breath. With his condition having become a little more salvageable, liquid medicines was injected into his veins, lines inserted and the repairing process commencing. After little more than twenty minutes, he was whisked away to the Intensive Care Unit for another team of medical staff to begin work on him.
Covered in blood, sweat and devoid of emotion, we all stepped back and reflected upon those fateful moments before a nurse said, “mate?” Never had I heard such a great suggestion – mate it would be.
Moments like the one I have described above are what influence an individual to go on and follow their dreams, and it was at that moment (among others) that have inspired me not give up in the fight of becoming a doctor, and fortunately enough, those efforts and beliefs have paid off, and I will now be going to study Medicine in September 2014.
However, Projects Abroad is not just about the host families who instil faith and kindness in you, nor is it just about the work placement, it was also about meeting the most incredible group of international volunteers.
In my five months in Argentina, I met the most epic bunch of people I could have ever imagined meeting. Through fate, fortune or design, who really knows, we had come from all over the world at the same time, and had met in Córdoba. They are truly friends for life. All loving the idea of travelling, experiencing new placements and trying new things brought us together in a bond that is different and unique to others.
Most evenings, we would all meet-up in the centre of Córdoba outside Patio Olmos (a very exclusive and expensive shopping centre) before heading off for dinner or a few post-work beverages. Córdoba is literally bursting at the seems with things to do and places to go, and you immediately find your favourites.
The Argentine lifestyle suited us all down to the ground – long days and long nights with little room for sleep, but adrenaline and the furore of happiness are both there to keep you going.
Furthermore, at the weekends we would organise to travel further afield and explore new places and other parts of the country. One weekend, five of my closest friends and I (from Norway, Denmark, Germany, France and Scotland) decided that we would travel to Las Cataratas (Iguazú Falls) on the border of Argentina and Brazil. Alyssa (from Germany) had a host mother who was a travel agent and organised the trip for us.
This trip to Las Cataratas turned out to be the highlight of my time in Argentina. We travelled 28 hours by coach to the border on a tour with was usually exclusive to Argentineans, but they were more than happy to include us in their lives, telling us about who they were and asked us hundreds upon hundreds of questions. They were very inquisitive about what Europe was like, and we were very quick to tell them that we preferred South America more!
Whilst in the North of the country, we took full advantage and checked out Paraguay and Brazil as well and had the most brilliant time! (At the end of my project, I stayed in South America, taking the time to explore all of the Argentinean provinces, visiting the World’s Southernmost City), and exploring Chile, Peru and Uruguay as well). These five friends of mine are the coolest bunch of individuals I will ever have the pleasure of meeting, and I feel completely privileged to be friends with them!
My Facebook and phonebook are both literally bursting at the seems with internationality, and I am in contact with all of them, and I will endeavour to be with them for the rest of my life.
This is what Projects Abroad is about – living life to the full and experiencing those places which you never thought tangible, and immersing yourself in a new culture and society; and whilst there meeting the most inspiring people – not only from your destination country, but also internationals like yourself. Projects Abroad light that fire of passion and enthusiasm like no other, and I would urge absolutely everyone to pick these guys if you want to realise your project abroad!
N.B: My one and only quick tip regarding travelling to South America at any point would be to make sure that you have at least a basic grasp of Spanish. For me, I feel that the reason why I was privileged enough to have gained all of the above experiences was not only due to my passion and enthusiasm which I demonstrated, but also because of my fluency in Spanish. For something like a medical project where you have the opportunity to speak to patients and fellow colleagues at every given second of the day, being able to speak the language effectively is extremely useful!