Yesterday, I tried surfing for the second time here in Lima. This time was marginally better than the first, thanks to some calmer waves. For a coordinated person, surfing is a tricky skill to pick up. For a slightly klutzy person, as many of my friends would classify me, surfing seems near impossible. The first time I went, my friends and I took a much too quick lesson then struggled barefoot along the rocky beach to the water and into the surf. The further I paddled out into the water, the stronger the waves got. It wasn’t long before I was bracing myself at the sight of the larger oncoming waves. They would come, flip me off of my board, and send me tumbling in a whirlwind of water. During these more violent waves, I couldn’t tell which way was up. All my senses were assaulted by salt and water and noise and force. The only thing to do was let the wave take you and wait for it to spit you out, all while hoping your board didn’t hit you in the head and you had enough air in your lungs.
Out there in the ocean, struggling to get back on my board before the next wave came, I was struck by a feeling that I do not often have: a lack of control. I couldn’t stop these waves, I couldn’t get a break from them, and I was completely at their mercy. It was a scary feeling. Unfortunately, this lack of control is a feeling that many people experiencing poverty have constantly.
On a patient follow-up visit to a very marginalized area recently, I was confronted with this problem in an unforgettable way. While waiting outside a small bodega with MEDLIFE staff for a follow-up patient, we encountered a woman who had come to wait for a phone call on the bodega’s phone. Upon closer inspection, this woman’s body, especially her eyes, were tinted yellow. Alarmed by this, the doctor asked if she needed medical care. She said no, but explained what had led to her appearance. Years ago, she had problems with her gallbladder, and had gone to the hospital to get it removed. Shortly after, she began turning yellow. When she went in for a scan, the medical professional had told her that she was missing a kidney. The woman was shocked – she had never had problems with her kidneys before. The MEDLIFE doctor told us that the surgeon for her gallbladder surgery had probably taken a kidney to sell. I knew organ trafficking was a problem here, but it had never before presented itself to me in such an apparent way. This woman must have felt so betrayed by the breach of her trust – an unfortunately not uncommon feeling towards medicine here.
Later, we heard more about the woman’s story from a neighbor. She had seven children. The oldest was 20 years old, while the youngest was 1 year old. The woman, with jaundice and missing a kidney and gallbladder, was probably not in the best health to be carrying children. The nurse commented that she needed to be on birth control, or to tell her husband to stop getting her pregnant. However, family planning is not often a process that most women here are involved in. Some women try to hide birth control use, or but many simply do not use it and then find themselves with many children, often not by their own choice. Finally, according to the neighbor, one of her daughters had stopped growing at age 6. She was now 11, and unable to walk. The doctor hypothesized that her daughter probably had polio.
I was speechless after hearing this woman’s story. She had gone through organ trafficking, had many kids in an area that was extremely affected by poverty, and a daughter with polio – all of which could have been prevented. How little control she must have felt over her situation, when wave after wave of negative circumstances hit her and her family. These events in her life were effects of a larger, very complicated system.
Working in the pueblos jovenes of Lima has illustrated to me the complexity of poverty. It doesn’t just come down to not having a job. It’s the political issues that lead people to mistrust their government, which has a history of violence and lack of support for its people, whether that’s by not providing electricity or denying land rights. It’s the economic issues that force people to leave their farming lifestyles and move to a crowded shantytown. It’s the social issues, like sexism and violence in the home. More than anything, it’s a lack of control over one’s situation.
When I was surfing, I knew I could make the decision to get out of the water whenever I wanted. Getting out was the only way to avoid the waves. However people here and marginalized populations around the world can’t simply leave their situations. That’s where MEDLIFE comes in. We’re working to help these people get out of their oceans of poverty, and onto more stable ground. I’m sure the woman we met felt little control over her situation. I want to change that and in working with MEDLIFE, I feel like I am – little by little and patient by patient. My experiences here are formative and everlasting. I know that I will leave this internship at the very least with a slightly better knowledge of surfing, but mainly with the desire to continue helping people affected by poverty leave their oceans of disadvantage and gain some control.