Wandering with the Wows: Volunteering in Peru

My First Medical Mission

 

I was nervous as I packed up the last bit of supplies into the duffel bag and zipped it shut.

The bag was full of medical supplies, including gauze, syringes, tape, drains, among other items that I would be taking to Ayacucho, Peru to assist the team of medical professionals during our week of volunteering.

About to leave for the airport… the supply duffel bag is triple the size of my luggage ;o)

 

Once ready, I grabbed my suitcase and back pack and jumped into the car headed to the airport.

I was nervous because I had never done a medical mission before. I was nervous because I had never been to Peru. I was nervous because I was flying solo and meeting up with the team once I was down there.

I was nervous, but I was excited.

I was excited to be a part of a medical mission, something I had for so long wanted to be a part of. I was excited because I was going to Peru and had heard so many great things about it. I was excited to meet the amazing team of medical volunteers in which I would be working so closely with over the next week.

I remember sitting on the plane on the way down there. Wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I was ready to give it a try.

After almost 24 hours of traveling, flying from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Lima, Peru to Ayacucho, I finally touched down at the regional airport.

And let me tell you, being the light traveller that I am, transporting the large duffel bag of supplies I mentioned in the beginning of the post was a feat in itself.  I can’t tell you how many people I accidentally bumped into or things I knocked over. I even had people laughing at me because it looked like I was carrying a body.

And don’t even get me started on getting through customs.  Even though I had a letter from the volunteer organization, they still rummaged through the entire bag and asked me non-stop questions about the supplies I was carrying.  Apparently, the gauze that the team had me bring didn’t have an expiration date (at least that we could find) and the customs agents were not too happy about that.

But alas, I made it through, figured out my way to the hotel, and met up with the rest of the volunteers. I had the rest of the day to get my bearings and prepare for the week ahead.

To give you an idea of what my days looked like, I’ll start with a broad overview and then I’ll discuss some of the big takeaways that I got from this experience.

 

Outreach: Day 1

 

Carrying supplies with one of the nurses on the first day

 

To start, the actual volunteer week was a complete blur. The days were extremely long and exhausting.

It started with me assisting for a day doing outreach, where a team of about 30 of us hopped in a bus and drove for 1-2 hours to a remote village to provide medical services.

We set up shop in an existing medical facility that was not being used and probably had not been used for quite some time.  I was placed on the pediatric team and got to work alongside a pediatrician, a medical student who was looking to specialize in pediatrics, and an interpreter.

It was fascinating for me to be a part of the medical evaluations and consultations since, as an outpatient occupational therapist, I do not typically get to see these being done.

I learned how to do a urine analysis (which sounds odd, but for me was really cool) and got to hear the pediatrician and med student banter back and forth about what they thought was going on with the patient.

I assisted in gathering height, weight, and head circumference at the beginning of the appointment, helped in developing rapport with the young kiddos who came in crying and screaming, and provided stretching and exercises to the patients as well.

I also helped run patients and paperwork to other areas of the hospital, as well as had to find interpreters throughout the day when our room was slammed with multiple patients.  Interestingly enough, since we were in a smaller village the main language used there was not Spanish, it was an indigenous language called Quechua.  Most of the younger population spoke both Spanish and Quechua, but some of the older patients only spoke Quechua.

So you’re probably thinking, what did this mean for us?

Well, many times we had to find two translators.  One to translate from Quechua to Spanish and one to translate from Spanish to English.

It was quite interesting as we basically played telephone while trying to communicate with one another.  And like I just mentioned, most of our Quechua to Spanish interpreters were younger children which was a challenge in itself to convey the right information to patients.

 

View from the road on the way to do outreach

 

Wazi Esperanza: Day 2-5

 

The rest of the week I spent at a pediatric outpatient clinic right in town, walking distance from the hotel we were staying at.  The second I set foot in this place, I knew I was in the right spot.

It was a little chaotic because the facility was in the process of building and moving into another space, so many of the rooms were filled with stuff as they prepared for the move.

The first two days I literally had a small mat on the floor where I saw the kiddos.  It wasn’t much space to work with, but I’ve learned over the years to be flexible and work with what you have.

Working on fine motor skills, stacking small rings on to a light stick

 

At the clinic, they had a small team consisting of 3 physical therapists, 1 occupational therapist, 1 psychologist, 1 social worker, and a few other administrators. They also had a clinic mom who helped keep the clinic clean and cooked lunch for all the staff everyday.

 

Cau cau for lunch today

 

The days typically started at 8am and ended at 6pm, with a nice 2 hour lunch break in the middle of the day.  Clients were seen back-to-back for roughly 1 hour sessions.  Sometimes I would even work well into my lunch break seeing an extra kid or two.

I worked closely with the occupational therapist, who was a new graduate from Belgium and was on a volunteer placement at this facility for one year.  Yeah, you read that right, she was volunteering here for a whole year without getting paid, mind you this was her first job out of school.

 

I also worked closely with the physical therapists too.  Many times they would come observe my sessions when one of their kiddos was being seen by me. They had amazing questions and were so invested in their kiddos progress.

 

Takeaways

 

I learned a lot that week, a lot about Peruvian culture, food, and customs, as well as learned a lot about me personally and how I can best help in my short time there.

 

#1: Education is Key

 

One of my biggest takeaways was that there was a drastic increase in severity in many of the diagnoses that I saw.

A little girl with hydrocephaly who was paralyzed from the waist down

 

For instance, I saw many kiddos with cerebral palsy, most of which were much more severe than I typically see in the states.

Since cerebral palsy typically occurs due to damage to the brain during pregnancy, childbirth, or shortly thereafter, I quickly realized that while the work that I was doing was good, there needed to be more education higher up the chain, i.e. doctors, nurses, parents, and other professionals involved in the pregnancy and delivering of the child to try to prevent this from happening altogether.

While these kiddos were super cute and happy, the impact of their disability on their ability to function was significant. Many of these kiddos couldn’t sit, crawl, or walk on their own. They couldn’t feed, dress, or take care of themselves, relying solely on their parents to take care of their needs.

It was emotionally taxing on me.

 

#2: Never Underestimate a Mother’s Strength

 

Many of the kiddos that I saw were between 8-12 years of age.  Many of them were also non-ambulatory.

But these kiddos did not utilize wheelchairs. They relied on their mothers to carry them.

The mothers used a large piece of brightly colored fabric, called Lliclla, in which they tied around their shoulders to carry their children on their backs.

I mean I was exhausted after working with the kiddos only for an hour and they carried them around all day every day. And sometimes the kiddos were almost as big as their moms.

I was in awe of these women and their strength.

 

#3: Importance Knows No Boundaries

 

In Los Angeles, I drive all around every day showing up to my client’s houses for our scheduled sessions. I cover a large area, especially since I am dodging LA traffic all the time.

Sometimes, I show up to my client’s houses for our confirmed, scheduled time and they are not home. Sometimes they forget. While this doesn’t happen every day, it happens enough. It is extremely frustrating and a waste of my time. Not to mention it wastes time that I could be using to see another kiddo in need.

While in Peru, I was informed that one of the kiddos I worked with traveled over 8 hours by horse-drawn cart over dirt roads to get to my session. They lived in a small village way outside of town and left their home at 2am in order to make it to their appointment at 10am with me.

Mind you, they arrived on time, actually even early, for our session. To me, that just proves the how important receiving these services are to them.

The orthopedic surgeon told me that he had a patient travel over 36 hours to make it to his surgery.

Wow, that is commitment!

 

#4: Do No Harm

 

One of the toughest cases that came to me was this little girl who had severe cerebral palsy and was significantly malnourished due to difficulties with feeding. She came in completely bundled up with so many layers of clothes that I didn’t notice anything until I went to do some range of motion on her.  As soon as I touched her, I realized that she had very little muscle mass on her frail body.

I knew this case was bigger than just what I could do and decided to bring in the entire pediatric team to assess this situation.

While this little girl was able to somewhat take a bottle, she had decreased suck strength and it took her way too long and too much effort in order to get the calories she needed. She also relied on having one of the staff members hold her and the bottle since she couldn’t sit or hold the bottle by herself.

Initially the team thought that she was greatly benefit from a feeding tube. But upon further discussion, we realized that getting a feeding tube would be quite a procedure for her. First, she would have to travel many hours, roughly 9-10 hours, to get to Lima. Then she would have to have the procedure and recover from it. Then travel back to Ayacucho. Plus, her parents would need education on how to feed her with the tube, as well as how to keep it clean and sanitary.  They would also need to buy special formula specifically for the g-tube, which included problems such as having access to it on a regular basis and being able to afford it since it was much more expensive that regular formula. The team worried that all of this might be too much for the child, for the parents or both.

The team went back and forth about what would be the best decision. We knew that the child might die if she didn’t get a feeding tube. But we also knew that the procedure or the stress from it, as well as the inability to get the formula to fed her might kill her as well.

It was heartbreaking.  Something that would have been much more common place here in the states, was way more convoluted and tricky in this village in Peru.

 

#5: Create Sustainability, Don’t Just Put on a Band-Aid

Patient at the hospital came back after a procedure with this sign

 

One of the most important aspects of any volunteer work is recognizing the impact that you have.

It is one thing to show up, do some work, dust off your hands, and return to you home. Yeah, you might be proud of what you did, but will your work actually have a long-term impact?

It’s pretty much just putting a band-aid on the situation.

For me, I strive to educate local therapists, other professionals, and the child’s caregivers as much as possible to ensure that my treatments and strategies carry over within the child’s life, long after I am gone.

During the treatment sessions, I would briefly work with the child to get a feel for what was going on. But once I had a good handle on the case, I would quickly shift my focus to educating the local OT and PTs, as well as the parents. I even spent most of time in between sessions and during the lunch break just sharing as much knowledge and resources that I could with the other therapists.

I can’t stress this part enough. The point of doing volunteer work is not just for you to feel good about what you did. It is to share information with the local communities and educate the professionals and providers there to make a long lasting impact on the people that you help.

 

The Wrap Up

 

 

This trip was definitely one for the memory books.  I worked incredibly hard, learned so much, and met so many amazing people.

I can honestly say that it was an experience that changed my life, for the better.

It’s funny because when I returned, a lot of people kept asking, “How was your vacation?”

In my opinion, doing a trip like this is no where near a vacation. My days were incredibly long and extremely exhausting. I poured my heart into the kiddos and families that I worked with and tried to pass on as much information to the young volunteer OT as I could.

It was also really cool to live in Ayacucho for a week, a place that is not a huge tourist draw.

Every morning and every evening, I would walk to work with the locals. During the day, I would shop at the local food markets. There were no other tourists there. I really was able to immerse myself in the local Peruvian culture.

I would hands down do this trip again and have since gone on a bunch of other volunteer trips, which I will write about next.

 

The volunteer team

 

Have you ever done an international volunteer trip? If so, how did it go?  If not, would you ever consider going?

9 Comments

  • FIRE Up The Couch November 21, 2018 at 11:20 am

    Awesome story Mrs WoW. Uplifting and educational. Thanks for making the world a better place and thanks for sharing your experience to hopefully inspire the rest of us to do good deeds, regardless of how large or small the impact may be.

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW November 24, 2018 at 10:33 am

      That’s what I’m hoping for. You don’t have to travel internationally to make a difference, there’s plenty to do within our own backyard. Thanks for reading FUTC and hope you had a wonderful thanksgiving!

      Reply
  • Dave @ Accidental FIRE November 22, 2018 at 3:34 am

    Very very cool! Kudos to you for your generosity and giving spirit. Happy Thanksgiving WoWs!

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW November 24, 2018 at 10:30 am

      Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving to you to AF!

      Reply
  • FIRECracker November 24, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    ” I was informed that one of the kiddos I worked with traveled over 8 hours by horse-drawn cart over dirt roads to get to my session….”

    Wow. That’s incredible. I’m in awe of you for your kindness, generosity and positive impact on these kids.

    Happy Thanksgiving! Reading these touching stories from Peru made me realized we all have so much to be thankful for.

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW November 26, 2018 at 6:14 am

      Awe thanks FC! Appreciate the comment. We all do have a lot to be thankful for. Hope you both are doing well, wherever you might be at the moment :o)

      Reply
  • Joe November 26, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Thank you for making the world a better place. You’re awesome.
    I’d like to volunteer internationally someday. Do you have some resources for me? I looked around a bit last year and they’re all paid trips. Which is okay with me…

    Reply
  • Deanna November 26, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    Beautiful story and I really love how you focused so much of your attention on educating the local OTs & PTs so as to have a lasting impact.

    You are generous and wise.

    I have a desire to go to Africa and teach. We’ll see if that can happen someday…

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW November 28, 2018 at 6:52 am

      Thank you Ms. Fi! I say just do it. It will change you life!

      Reply

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