The past four months working as a MEDLIFE intern in the Lima headquarters has been an amazing experience. Living in a city that is bigger than my whole country certainly has its ups and downs: from the near death experiences of crossing the roads in rush hour traffic to the excitement of the bustling markets that await you on the other side, filled to the brim with new, unusual fruits and vegetables, an array of crafts bursting with colour and hundreds of tupperware boxes (that make you wonder how you have managed without one of each size all of this time). Lima is different enough from Scotland that I feel excitement at the prospect of all of the new things I have yet to discover, but there are enough home comforts that I feel content here and am delighted in calling it my home for the year.
When offered the chance to spend time in Ecuador to help out with the clinics, I jumped at the opportunity to experience another country in South America and find out if my love of the people and culture that I have experienced in Peru could stretch across the border.
Touching down in the Quito airport, fellow interns Joey, Jennifer and I let out a gasp of astonishment at the beauty of the rolling hills and green landscape that lay below. After four months in a capital that was built on a desert, I had forgotten that not all trees have a grey, dusty green shade. After our short stay in Quito, we ventured three hours to Riobamba. Perched 2,800 meters above sea level, Riobamba lies in the heart of Ecuador’s mountains and is surrounded by jagged volcanoes with snowy peaks. It is the base point for the week long mobile clinics that MEDLIFE hosts in the surrounding area.
Rising early each morning before the mist had risen, we embark on our journey into the mountains to serve the rural communities whose access to medical facilities is hindered due to the distance and limited transport options: foot, horse or the occasional truck. At over 3,500 feet, the landscape and views are striking as the rising clouds reveal fields of varying crops, giving the effect of patchwork quilt mountains. Endearing rosy cheeks with wide grins welcome the MEDLIFE bus as it pulls into the village and excitement spreads with the prospect of medical treatment on their doorstep. The stations are set up and the day commences. From the education stand comes the voices of doctors and nurses sharing advice with the adults on common diseases and preventative methods, while their children are awash with excitement at the prospect of receiving a new toothbrush in their choice of colour and being taught how to care for their teeth by these fascinating foreigners at the toothbrushing station.
Over in general medicine, doctors are diagnosing patients with the students at their side who observe and learn about the medical issues that face these rural communities. Not a whimper is heard from the patients at the dentist station, who commonly decline any anaesthesia while having multiple teeth extracted and cavities filled. Welcome relief from the goosebumps that cover our legs comes when the sun peers through the clouds, giving off an intense warmth that reminds us that in the mountains of Ecuador, we are near the closest point on earth to the sun. It becomes clear that the local community wisely chooses not rely on these brief sunny intervals for their source of warmth. Giggling at our shorts and light fleeces, the women reveal much slimmer figures than first appearances would suggest as they remove their layers of clothing for the weigh-in at the triage station. The mound of cloth that make up their outfits could rival my entire wardrobe!
A steady stream of patients walks or trots (3 to a horse) in from the neighbouring communities throughout the day to receive this on-the-doorstep medical treatment, some having not visited a doctor in years. The importance of culturally sensitive doctors who understand the culture of each community becomes clear as I note the differing health problems that the climate, education system, access to healthcare and diet of each community can present.
Winding down the day, the children of the community gather together for a game of football against the students as their parents are the final few to be seen to by the medical staff. Thoroughly exhausted from a long day of rewarding but challenging work and an intense game of soccer at high altitude, the students and staff file back on to the bus and embark on the windy journey down the mountains and back to the hotel. Even the striking views, framed perfectly in the bus windows cannot compete with the exhaustion that sweeps over the student as the bus weaves down the mountain paths. I am rewarded a couple of hours of calm in which I take the time, amongst the light snores, to reflect upon the community’s sincere words of gratitude as we parted company, and I realise how lucky I am to be a part of MEDLIFE and the amazing work that the organisation does.