When going on a service trip abroad, many people will go for their own various reasons. I recently attended a “White-Savior” complex discussion at my school about the new concept of voluntourism and lessons from this talk have really stuck with me. Voluntourists are people like myself, someone who wishes to combine volunteer work with an exotic experience abroad. As Americans, we think that we can do so much in so little time. We’ll sign up for a one-week trip to build houses in Haiti and come back with pictures and stories to tell hoping that it’ll place us in the group of the kindhearted and selfless Samaritans. We choose to go abroad because we want to experience something that our affluent lives do not offer without realizing that the same type of problems exist in the United States. So why do we still choose to give service in a different country? It’s because we all feel the need to travel and explore in addition to the fact that other people’s problems seem so much less complex and easier to fix. Our lack of knowledge of other cultures makes it easier for us to perform basic community service thinking that “anything we do” will help. With our altruistic nature, we tend to seek our own quest for experience while forgetting about the real reason for going on the mission trip in the first place. Whether it’s building houses in Haiti or a medical mission trip like this one from IHG, our typical “White-Savior” approach can be very dangerous.
When looking at the quote, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” the key thing to focus on is the concept of having new eyes. In order to truly make an impact on your life and many others it’s important that we stray away from giving preference to material possessions and instead work more towards empathy and compassion. The real lesson learned is going to be from the people, not from the traveling and scenery. During this program, I know that it’s going to be extremely important to try and get to know the culture of Lima to the best of my ability. The reason we travel is to gain a first-hand experience of another culture that is not like our own. Although we are going there to impact their lives and health, this experience in return will teach us more about ourselves and our own society. It’s going to be important for us to not only correctly diagnose and give care for their injuries, but to try and truly understand why these diseases and injuries are occurring in the first place. What is it about their society and culture that makes them susceptible to poor health? Is it how the government runs? Access to care? Food? Water? These are questions that all of us should be asking ourselves throughout our trip so we can try to find a solution to their problems. Everyone in this world has so much knowledge and experience to offer, it’s just whether or not people are willing to put themselves out there and try to be empathetic and compassionate. It’s going to take a lot of adaptability, respect, and communication, but I can guarantee you that the biggest thing I’ll take away from this trip is my relationships and experience with the people rather than the places I saw. In having a new perspective, or “new eyes,” all of us will be able to help promote a more powerful global interconnectedness than what exists today.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
It has been an ambition of mine to take a more active role in providing medical care to developing countries. In the past, I have volunteered in global relief aid with the HelpingHands organization (donating to earthquake and flood victims). However, iHelp Globally offered a more medically driven volunteering opportunity and a “doctors without borders” type of interaction and experience that I always wanted to partake in as a physician.
On a hectic yet exciting day in the Emergency Department as a Medical Scribe, I checked my email to find out that I was chosen to receive the IHG scholarship! Within the next few days, I was getting the proper vaccinations for travel and getting my passport renewed. The last time I had even left the country was to the Dutch West Indies for medical school several years ago. I bough the ticket: my dream was actually becoming a reality! Before I knew it, I was boarding the plane. I was anxious to get to my destination to set up the medical clinic for the patients. With only one layover in Texas and several hours later, I looked through the airplane window, and I could see through the clouds: We were slowly descending into Peru, South America! I was traveling to a country I always wanted to visit. I was passionate to serve Peru clinically because of their friendly people, rich culture, colors, music, food, and breathtaking natural scenery. More specifically I admire the amazing art, architecture, poetry, literature, civil rights and political history beautifully preserved and celebrated in the district of Barranco.
We began our journey in Miraflores, which is a very modern, hip and up to date mini-metropolis. Everyone was pleasant and kind, from the Peruvian city folk to visitors like my fellow clinic team members, mentors, and Spanish translators. I went out onto the balcony of our hostel and I saw people doing Zumba in the street. I came to find out that there is a health awareness movement going on known as Rejuvenate Peru, where all throughout the city everyone participated in physical activity such as walking, running, biking, skating, soccer, Zumba, dance, and salsa. I saw Spinning Classes and fitness centers with swimming pools, tennis courts and racquetball. I thought to myself: There are doctors’ offices and clinics here, quaint little pharmacies or "Mi Farmacia" and has all the medical care and facilities like any big city.... What medical assistance could they need? Did I come to the right place??
The next day, early in the morning, the team of student volunteers, pharmacists, physicians and clinic staff piled up into a van with all our suitcases full of medical aid.
We head out towards the mountains and desert like areas. The big buildings and fancy brand name stores of Miraflores are no longer seen within our vicinity. Houses are made of stone slabs and huge bricks in the middle of deserts with no other buildings and not much else. You can tell these communities are less developed. It becomes clear, we are now going to serve those that are less fortunate and do not have the same financial resources and modern advancements like cities and districts such as Miraflores, Magdalena Del Mar, and Barranco. We have entered Callao (a relatively long drive from where our hostel was comfortably and conveniently located).
The history of our patient population in itself was interesting and important to learn about. The patients were families of refugees that were displaced and started to make a home here during the political discourse and land struggle between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The residents of Callao are sort of the forgotten people that had to leave everything behind in their original homes and land because of the wars and political turmoil. Although that was many years ago, they currently do not get the best of health care, education, jobs or funding from the government. For example, a common person in Callao does not have any available plans for regular visits with primary care physicians to manage his or her diabetes or hypertension, and has a limited access to medicine.
It truly broke my heart when I learned many families with small children in this area did not have access to clean running water that is free of lead and coal deposits, as the Chilean mining trains would run through the town. In fact, every time I would listen to heart and lungs with my stethoscope, I would have to time it perfectly to when the trains would not be coming through. The trains ran through so often making loud noise and apparently dropping harmful substances into the air, water, and environment. I made a poignant effort to educate them about covering their water well with a seal to prevent the lead deposits ending up in the water, boiling the water and filtering it before drinking it to reduce the level of contaminants, minerals, bacteria, and parasites.
As clinic leader, I was motivated to keep the flow of the clinic going smoothly from history and physicals to vital signs to diagnostic screening and counseling. I was able to encounter, help diagnose and treat a wide variety of infections such us tinea versicolor, scabies, abscesses, chalazion, stye, strep throat, other cutaneous fungal infections, urinary tract infections under the supervision of licensed Peruvian medical providers. I remember from microbiology that Malesia furfur was a common fungal cutaneous infection in South America.
Reflecting on this journey, it was an eye opener and humbling experience. I quickly realized how truly blessed I am. I thought about the hospitals in the U.S. and how lucky we are to have diagnostic tests like x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs readily available. We did our best to provide the best health service we could, regardless of not having the advanced technology. With the help of the Spanish language translators (who played a significant role), and under the guidance of the Peruvian physicians, the clinic volunteers and staff leaders of iHelp Globally tended to an exceptionally high volume of patients in a timely manner. The people of Callao were always smiling, laughing, and amicable. I will never forget the patients and how welcoming, appreciative, and understanding they were of our efforts.
The most memorable moments included playing with the children: The running and playing kept them busy. We offered stickers, puppets, bubbles, coloring books, and little toys... which kept the environment lighthearted even though it could get stressful when the patient volume picked up. You wanted to give each patient the highest quality of care. It was challenging yet exciting to maintain the balance and flow of the clinic.
At the end of the journey it was the family bond I made with the fellow clinic volunteers that made that experience even more memorable. We were all one unit coming together for one goal: To help others, and to give back to humanity for all the things we have been blessed with. It was an adventure we all shared together... a great memory and lifechanging experience. I got to do yoga, run and walk on the beach, meditate, free my mind, be around nature, swim, ride bikes through the city, sandboard, sand dune riding, and enjoy Peruvian food!! I hope to volunteer again through iHelp Globally after completing my medical residency as I want to continue to contribute to a loving and deserving community! Thank you iHelp Globally!
Imran Hasnuddin, MD
Graduate of: University of St. Eustatius School of Medicine/American University of Integrative Sciences at St. Maarten