"A New Job in a New Country" Field Journal by Tom Barkan - MEDLIFE

“A New Job in a New Country” Field Journal by Tom Barkan

I am sitting on a bench in London next to my best friend. We are looking out over the Thames and admiring the bridge. I check my phone and see an email notification from MEDLIFE. I have been waiting all week to hear if I will be offered a job, which would mean moving to Peru. I tell my friend they offered me the job. He congratulates me, tells me he can’t believe I am going to be living in South America. The words sound strange coming out of his mouth and I feel an even stranger feeling pass through me. We drink a glass of mulled wine to celebrate, and the conversation moves on.

Fast forward two months and I am laying in bed with my eye mask on and my ear plugs in. I hear a voice shouting my name! I continue to hear my name being called as I slowly start to wake up. It’s only 7am, behind the mysterious voice I can hear the morning commute in full swing in the background. I pull open the window of my apartment to discover that the voice belongs to the founder of MEDLIFE, Nick Ellis, who was calling up to me to make sure I had flown in safely the night before. I had arrived.

And that set the tone for my first week at MEDLIFE. I quickly realized that the heartfelt and personal welcome from Nick was not just a symptom of his own personality, but rather a reflection of a culture of kindness and warmth that permeates throughout MEDLIFE and into the communities it supports. I had been assigned to go to the ‘field’ everyday that first week, to help with the health clinics that our volunteers deliver as part of their Service Learning Trips (SLTs). I started to meet my new colleagues. Each new team member I met was more friendly and inviting than the last, and as we left the luxuries of central Lima behind us, and traveled to the less fortunate communities on the city’s outskirts, the heart of MEDLIFE started to reveal itself.

My first day in the field went as follows. The trip leaders, volunteers, and supporting MEDLIFE staff gathered in the hotel at downtown Miraflores where the volunteers were being accommodated. By 7:30 AM, each group was in their respective buses, and by 8AM we had arrived at the hospital in the city center to pick up the doctors who would be supporting the health clinics that day. Once they had boarded, we headed towards the communities who were waiting for us.

After climbing up the Cerros (what Peruvians refer to as hills but what most of us would describe as mountains!), and thanking both the driver and the bus itself for making it up the treacherous dusty paths safely, we disembarked and assembled as a team. We could already see members of the community waiting for us, in anticipation of our arrival, and ready to receive health care. Clear instructions were given as to where each station would be placed, and each volunteer already knew exactly which station they were assigned to that morning. Gazebos were erected, medical equipment was booted up, scrubs were tied on, and before we knew, the clinic was underway.

Everything ran like clockwork. Community members all started in the hygiene station, washing their hands, brushing their teeth, and being welcomed by the volunteers and MEDLIFE staff. From there, they moved on to triage, where a doctor and two volunteers worked together to process community members, understand their needs, and assign them to the corresponding stations. After that, community members waited to be seen in education, where they received detailed information and resources about preventative health care from a local nurse, supported by volunteers. Depending on their needs, community members then went to be seen by OB/GYN, General Medicine, or Dentistry. This is where the value of the health clinic really started to shine through. This was not just a paper pushing exercise. Community members were having tooth extractions successfully performed, conditions diagnosed, and smear tests safely and respectfully conducted, all within the boundaries of their own communities without having to travel, pay, or wait for weeks to be seen. One of the final stations was Pharmacy, where community members could pick up any medication they had been prescribed by the doctors from the previous stations. 

Before joining an SLT, I could not have predicted the benefit that the volunteers so clearly received as a result of taking part. Watching them busily process community members, collaborate with each other as well as with the local doctors, and connect with the community for hours in the heat, it was clear that this was not only work that they wanted to do, but also work that they would never forget. Over the course of the next few days, after catching up with the volunteers, the one piece of feedback I repeatedly received was that many felt this experience had changed the area of medicine they wanted to focus on, and for some it had solidified a desire to dedicate their medical careers to working with communities with low access to healthcare. 


The strange feeling which had passed through me on that London bench months earlier was clearly a feeling of apprehension over moving to a country on the other side of the world. Although I couldn’t interpret it at the time, questions were running through my mind; is this going to be the right move? Will my values align with MEDLIFE? Will I be supported and feel safe? It’s safe to say that after just a short week at MEDLIFE, it feels as though those questions have been answered, and the strange feeling in my stomach has been replaced by a feeling of excitement and anticipation, as I prepare to lean deeper into the MEDLIFE movement.

If you are inspired by Tom’s experience working in a MEDLIFE Mobile Clinic, consider joining one of our upcoming Service Learning Trips! Or to stay up to date on all things MEDLIFE, fill out the interest form below to join our mailing list.