Rebecca Le, 24, just started her second year as a medical student at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Le, who is president of the college’s Global Health Interest Group, recently spent two weeks in the heart of Bolivia, volunteering at health centers for the underprivileged through the umbrella non-profit organization SustainableBolivia. This is a snapshot of her working adventure.
Where she went
Cochabamba is Bolivia’s fourth largest city. Home to nearly 2 million people, it is known for its extremes of wealth and poverty. Le shadowed doctors at the Centro de Salud España, a primary health care clinic that caters to a large population of pregnant women and children, and helped nurses at the Centro de Salud Pacata, which serves more than 40,000 residents and focuses on health promotion and disease prevention.
Where she stayed
In an old nun’s dormitory with a beautiful balcony view of the mountains, but no ac/central heating. “At night, sometimes it was colder inside than outside. I had to sleep with four thick blankets, and I still woke up cold.”
What she did
“I would help measure pregnant women’s bellies and locate the fetus’ heart via sonogram. The clinical skill set I learned from clinical skills class helped me in this job. I helped nurses with intake, including measuring weight, height and blood pressure.
“I also helped work on a vaccination campaign, where we went door-to-door to find children who needed vaccines and vitamins.” Le did not help administer the vaccines. “I am personally terrified of vaccines (I realize this is ironic given my status as a medical student), so I decided observing vaccinations was best for the patients and me at this time,” she said.
Overcoming the language barrier
With only two years of high school Spanish under her belt, Le was thankful doctors generally used generic names for prescriptions. She also found herself having to actually listen harder, to depend more on the patients’ non-verbal cues, and when in doubt—use Google Translate.
“A pregnant woman kept telling me she had piedras. One quick Google Translate and I realized she had stones, as in gallstones. I got it!”
“I realized how much of a disability I’ve caused myself by not pushing myself to learn Spanish. Even in Miami, it’s likely that I could easily face another situation where I don’t have a reliable translator to translate in Spanish.”
About taking photos
Normally, Le, a photography buff, would have taken lots of photos during such a trip, but this was different. “I did not feel comfortable taking photos of the patients at the clinics. People in Bolivia often don’t take photos. There’s an underlying Andean belief that photography and mirrors capture your soul.”
The photo above, is a self-portrait at sunset from the balcony of her living quarters.
“I found this experience to be necessarily challenging, but incredibly rewarding.”