Meet the patient: Gustavo Cartagena

When Gustavo Cartagena was a young adult, his aspirations were many. He dreamed of providing more for his family than his parents ever could during his own childhood. Though he was born into poverty, Gustavo saw a bright economic future ahead—he had hope.

Gustavo is now thirty-one years old and a father of four, but unfortunately he has been unable to accomplish any of the goals he set for himself when he was younger. Gustavo could not have predicted that he would develop an illness that would prevent him from achieving any professional career while sending his family even deeper into poverty.


Gustavo’s first professional dream was primary education, but he could not afford the tuition to earn a teaching degree. This disappointment did not deter Gustavo; it only reshaped his professional dreams. He next aspired to be professional chauffeur, a very lucrative position in his small Ecuadorian town of Cumana de la via Banos. With his blossoming family in mind, Gustavo set his sights on a career to pull his family out of poverty.

Similar to Gustavo’s short-lived teaching career, his new dream was never given a chance. This time, however, his ambitions were not halted due to economic constraints. Gustavo failed the preliminary eye exam required to enter Chauffeur School. He was told his poor eyesight rendered him practically blind and unfit to drive, thus crushing his dreams of being a chauffeur.

Though this moment was heartbreaking, the result had not come as a surprise. At the time of Gustavo’s chauffeur entrance exam, his vision had already been causing him trouble for quite some time. Gustavo did not want to believe he was going blind in his twenties, but the signs were undeniable.

The first indication was a change in his ability to see objects and recognize people—even his own family. At times, he could not recognize the person standing right in front of him. At first, he brushed off these incidents and made up excuses to conceal his impairment to the people around him. He could not pretend for long; a shadow was beginning to cloud his vision, slowly darkening and warping his sight.

Although teaching and chauffeuring did not work out, Gustavo was able to find work in construction. It was unstable at times, but he earned a sufficient salary to support his four children. It was through this work that he was introduced to MEDLIFE, years after his symptoms first began. The organization saw his immediate need for medical help and brought him to the doctor for exams and an official diagnosis.


Gustavo was diagnosed with astigmatism and a severe keratoconus of his right eye, and mild version of it in his left eye. The keratoconus was causing his eyes to slowly take the shape of a cone, a deformity that was distorting his vision. Doctors affirmed that, if left unattended, the keratoconus would eventually lead to complete blindness.

When doctors informed Gustavo that he would need a transplant, the news was bittersweet.  For years, Gustavo was aware that he needed surgery of some kind, but his economic situation prevented him from affording an operation.

Throughout Gustavo’s adulthood, he has been trapped in a vicious poverty cycle: he can not find good work due to his condition, and because he can not make a comfortable living, he can not afford the necessary medical care, let alone a comfortable house for his family to live in.  Gustavo, his wife, and their four children reside in a barely livable two-room house; one room serves as a bedroom for their entire family, and the other is their kitchen.

Gustavo’s progressing symptoms eventually barred him from work altogether, and his dreams of improving his family’s economic situation fell flat. Although Gustavo’s wife was able to pick up the responsibility of providing for their family by selling baked goods at the market, Gustavo feels as though he failed his family. While Gustavo was losing his sight, his wife was barely making enough money to feed their children, leaving their family in dire economic straits.

Little did Gustavo know that meeting MEDLIFE would reverse his dark path into complete blindness. MEDLIFE stepped in and informed Gustavo that he would finally get the surgery he needed to cure the keratoconus in his right eye. Gustavo and his wife were stunned. Although Gustavo’s condition was curable, they never believed that they would actually be able to afford the surgery to overcome it.


With MEDLIFE by Gustavo’s side throughout the entire process, he underwent a successful surgery, and is one step closer to regaining his sight. Recovery will be a slow process and Gustavo is aware of the patience required to endure the wait. He bides his time eagerly knowing that his eyes will one day be sharp enough to land him the chauffeuring position he dreamed about years ago.

Though hope was previously lost, the future Gustavo planned for himself and for his family is fortunately in sight.


Hear it From MEDLIFErs

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Reya Seby
Western University

This trip motivated me more to pursue a career in the healthcare field so that I can use my resources to help those who need it the most, similar to MEDLIFE’s mission.

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Victoria DiCanio
University of Connecticut

It was most enjoyable to finish the hard work and see how big a difference a group of individuals can make. It was such an amazing experience.

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Anita Woo
University of Toronto

I enjoyed the mobile clinics the most, especially the dental and triage portions. I would definitely recommend a MEDLIFE trip, it was a great experience.

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David Saff
Maclay High School

The most enjoyable part of my trip was hanging out with the amazing group of kids I was with. I would highly recommend a MEDLIFE volunteer trip to others.

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Sydney Sansone
Nova Southeastern University

This trip made everything that I was learning in my public health courses come to life and immersed me in a new culture while also learning about medicine.

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Abygail Youmans
College of Charleston

Being involved with MEDLIFE is not like joining another club - its bigger than that. It is about joining a movement that seeks to help change people’s quality of life for forever.

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Emi Hofmann
University of Central Florida

Not only was I able to participate in a week long Mobile Clinic, shadowing doctors of all types of specialties including pharmacy, dentistry, gynecology, and more, but I was also able to learn about the culture and visit incredible places.

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Julian Takagi-Stewart
University of Toronto

One thing that I really loved about this trip was that MEDLIFE made sure that the volunteers got an understanding of the complexity of issues that lead to underprivileged people in communities outside of the main city

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Hannah Van Hofwegen
University of Ottawa

Whether it was basketball with the local kids, assisting the doctors, talking with families, building washrooms, holding babies, or spending time with the people who were on the SLT with me, this was an amazing opportunity that I would do over and over again.

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Isabelle Holt
Cornell University

I loved learning about the patients MEDLIFE has followed and how they offer real help to people with chronic/urgent conditions. It is amazing how the organization formed real connections with the communities.

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Valerie Lindeborg

Our family had the privilege of participating in multiple trips with Nick [founder] and his amazing staff. Their expertise made the trips unforgettable while instilling in my boys the fundamentals of good character: selflessness, compassion, and empathy.

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Harry Vildibill
University of Georgia

As an aspiring physician, MEDLIFE motivated me to further continue my goal of becoming a doctor. In fact, I enjoyed the Tanzania Service Learning Trip so much that I decided to go on another trip to Cusco, Peru.