By Joseph Brewster, P-3 Student
My trip to Cusco, Peru this summer was nothing less than exhilarating. It all started from a simple email I received one day. I began to read about this program and all that it had to offer, and was honestly doubtful that I would even get accepted, since they only chose 30 people from around the world. Each student needed to meet a certain GPA requirement and must have finished at least one year of medical classes. I decided to apply and was humbled to be one of the 30 applicants chosen from around the world to participate.
The program was structured as a 6 week study abroad and medical mission trip. My peers and I studied Spanish for four hours each weekday in addition to 15 hours of a medical Spanish class in the local school in Cusco, Peru. We also volunteered at two of the local clinics and had shadowing and medically related experiences at one of their three hospitals.
Two days a week, we would shadow and volunteer in the hospital while learning about the Peruvian healthcare system. Each student was placed in their specialty to personalize their training. Being a pharmacy student, I had the opportunity to shadow pharmacists and interns in the ER, NICU, pediatrics, trauma, in-patient, and out-patient pharmacy. It was an eye opening experience to see the similarities and differences in our healthcare systems. For example, the number one disease state in Cusco is diabetes with hypertension being a close second. Oral medications are most commonly prescribed for diabetes, and enalapril for hypertension. Insulin is the last line of therapy for diabetics and is rarely dispensed. In addition, they mainly had access to only one strength of each medication such as Ibuprofen in 400 mg strength.
Nothing compared to what I learned next. If you are Peruvian, any and all medications for tuberculosis (TB), HIV, and AIDS are completely free along with any vaccines needed. Also, if you can't afford your diabetes medication, it was free as well. Despite the Peruvian people not having any cost barriers for their medications, compliance was still a major issue that pharmacists are struggling to combat just as in the United States.
People would line up at 2 a.m. at the hospital to see a physician. The hospital was complete chaos each morning with hundreds of people competing for an appointment. In addition, the hospital was overpopulated with some wards having six patients to a room and others having one bathroom for the entire floor. However, despite the conditions, the people were extremely grateful to receive healthcare. I learned so much through my time shadowing the pharmacists.
One memory stands out the most. I was volunteering in the ER pharmacy at the hospital and a lady came in with a little girl and a baby strapped to her back. She was getting three medications, one being an antibiotic. The pharmacist told her the price of the medications which totaled around $1.10 (U.S. currency) and the lady started pleading saying she couldn't afford it. My heart was torn to see the despair in the lady's eyes. I quickly told my pharmacist that I would gladly pay for her medication and it would be my joy. The lady was overjoyed and could not stop thanking me. It was moments like this one that made this trip so meaningful and solidified the reason I chose pharmacy as a profession.
Our visits to the clinics were just as significant and impactful. Although they were not so much pharmacy based, it was definitely people based, reaching out to make a difference in their lives. One clinic run by nuns was for children who were abandoned and left to die on the streets as well as adults who had no one to take care of them. Many of these patients struggled with learning and physical disabilities. The director instructed us that it was really not about what we said, but a simple warm touch and smile that could make all of the difference in their life. I was able to give back by washing clothes by hand and hanging to dry, feeding the children, reading to them, and distributing gifts I had brought from the states. I was humbled that I had the opportunity to volunteer there.
The last clinic in which we volunteered was affiliated with a school. The school was mainly for special needs children with various learning disabilities such as Down syndrome. Under direction of the learning specialist, we worked with toddlers and showed them different skills such as tying a shoe, putting on lotion, stacking, smelling differentiation, and climbing. The techniques were very insightful to learn and implement. We also had the opportunity to play with the children during their recess break. This was one of the best times of the trip because the children were awesome and so friendly! We danced, played soccer, and most importantly loved on the children and let them know that we cared. One girl in particular named Flor suddenly came to give me a huge hug and would not let go. She was adorable and absolutely melted my heart within five seconds. She holds a special place there to this day.
This trip confirmed that I have a passion for people and a heart to help. There is so much need in this world including our surrounding communities, and we can make a dynamic difference if we only reach out. I know another trip to Peru will be in my future soon because, believe it or not, I feel as if they made a bigger impact in my life than I could have made in theirs. We say here at the University of Texas that "What starts here changes the world" and I choose to live up to this statement and make a difference one person at a time.