January 30, 2014
About four years ago, as a Hamilton College freshman, I had set a goal for myself. I wanted my Hamilton education to be based on both theoretical and practical knowledge. I wanted my education to expand beyond the pages of my books and take me to far away places like Antarctica or Costa Rica. By the end of my freshman year, I had declared myself as pre-med. I was starting to discover my passion for science and serving those in need.
Like a typical pre-med student, my schedule was overloaded with hectic science classes, and I realized that my quest for experiential learning was getting out of reach. Soon, with my heavy backpack on, I was lurking around the hallways of the Science Center to see my professors for office hours. During daytimes I was occupied memorizing structures of organic molecules and during night times I was dreading the organic synthesis reactions that I needed to know for my next exam.
By junior year, I still had a lot of requirements left to complete my pre-medical coursework and my neuroscience concentration. While many of my friends applied for study-abroad programs and ventured into many different beautiful places in the world, I was stuck on campus. However, I knew that attending a liberal arts college was a blessing and that there must be other abroad opportunities.
During my sophomore year, I was able to attend a Global Health conference at Stanford University with the help of Student Assembly funding. At the conference I met Dr. Paul Farmer and learned of his work in Haiti, where he has been providing effective treatment to poor populations afflicted with HIV and tuberculosis. His work has inspired me to bring first world treatment to third world countries in the future. With my newfound interest in global health in mind, I started looking for short-term medical volunteer opportunities abroad. After countlessly searching for opportunities since summer after my junior year, I found a perfect “Medical Spanish Program” at a non-profit organization, Mayan Medical Aid.
An American physician, Dr. Craig Sinkinson, established this non-profit organization to provide effective healthcare to poor Mayan Indians in Guatemala. His program trains healthcare pre-professionals and professionals to be caring physicians.
Even though abroad volunteer programs can be a lot of fun with cultural immersion, they require a program fee. Sometimes for a short-term experience, the cost of the programs can be pricey and out of financial reach for some of us. But Hamilton has a generous community and has grants that can help cover the cost for its students. With the generosity of The Class of 1979 Student Travel Award, I was able to assist Dr. Sinkinson in providing medical service to needy indigenous population in rural Guatemala this winter break. The program not only allowed me to understand healthcare at rural settings but also a lot about the culture of indigenous people and their struggles.
My daily schedule included seeing patients at the clinic in the morning and taking a medical Spanish course in the afternoon. During my free time, I attended many religious or community service events and got to listen to people’s stories that have left me enlightened. In terms of healthcare, I learned that it is important to treat patients holistically. Most patients that I saw wanted IV for any health issues they had. In fact, they preferred IV over medications. This is because they are able to see a syringe physically being injected in their body, which assures them that it is going to work. But for something like medicine, they lack background to understand how pills can be equally efficient.
To treat patients’ psychology before even treating their biology, Dr. Craig gave them IVs and then prescribed medications that the patients needed to take. I also learned that on a daily basis doctors encounter uncertain situations—where sometimes they know exactly what they are doing, while other times they just have to trust their instinct to perform their best. They need to be practical and be problem solvers when it comes to decision making. Gender and language can act as barriers while communicating with patients, and communication is key for accurate diagnosis.
Most of the health issues the Mayans have are preventable diseases like diarrhea, sinusitis, worms, and malnutrition. Unfortunately, due to financial constraint and lack of education, people in developing countries do not lead a comfortable life like we do in developed countries. What these people need is not only standard medical care but also education and awareness regarding sanitation, STIs and other health issues.
My educational and eye-opening experience in Guatemala this winter break was an illustration of the amazing opportunities that a Hamilton education can provide. To any pre-medical students who are discouraged about not getting a semester abroad experience, there are plenty of other abroad opportunities out there. As the American novelist Ayn Rand once said: “Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” Hamilton will help you find your passion and will help you achieve the vision you have for your self.
“From Where I Sit” is a column dedicated to the international voices of Hamilton’s campus. If you are an international student and are interested in contributing a column, contact Barbara Britt-Hysell (firstname.lastname@example.org).