Today was the day. With sweaty palms and few expectations, I would finally have the opportunity to accompany one of the nurses, Janet, for my first patient follow-up visit in the field. I excitingly rushed down to the lower floor of the office, greeted her with a customary kiss on the cheek and introduced myself. While we waited at the bus station, which was about a block or two from the office, I nervously attempted to converse with her in Spanish. Feeling invigorated,I understood almost everything, the amount of time she had been working with MEDLIFE, the names and ages of her children, and the patients we were going to visit.
It took about an hour and a half to travel to the location of the patients in Villa Maria del Triunfo. We whisked through Lima’s infamous traffic on a city bus, transferred to a Combi, a privately owned transportation bus, and finally ended up in a cramped mototaxi chugging our way up the bumpy and uncomfortable dirt road. When we arrived at the smog-covered community, I was struck by the intriguing beauty of overcrowded houses immersed in the faint smell of burning trash and echoing barks of stray dogs. Janet and I had spent about an hour walking around one hill to the next. Finally after asking for what seemed like 100 people for directions, we arrived at a tattered and rustic house. What I first noticed was the almost impossible stairs that we had to traverse just to arrive at their front door. The uneven stairs were made out of stones and dirt and, when wet, would require the residents to navigate an extremely dangerous thoroughfare.
Every family member in the house politely greeted us when we entered and I finally found myself face to face with the patient, Francisco. Sitting down on a worn out couch was a 69 year-old man with a ruggedly serene face framed by a smattering of withered grey hair. He smiled and mumbled a few indistinguishable words to express his gratitude in light of the fact that he had to deal with so much. Before we had entered, Janet mentioned to me that this man suffered from a severe case of Alzheimer’s, making it impossible for him to leave the house. We sat down on another couch just a few feet from Francisco, while his wife patiently stood nearby. Once I handed the evaluation papers to Janet, I was a silent observer. It was a back and forth communication between Janet and the patient’s wife for about 20 minutes. Ultimately, all of Francisco’s symptoms became clear. He had pain in his joints, difficulty swallowing, controlling his bladder, and had a very difficult time conversing with others. He needed a 24/7 caretaker to aid in his daily activities. I was shocked to learn that this family had limited access to basic resources, which many of us take for granted: running water, electricity, a clean and healthy living space, and easily accessible healthy food. It quickly became clear that all of these factors contributed to the difficult situation Francisco and his family faced. It not only is medicine that can provide a stable and healthy recovery, but also the correct environment. Francisco slowly descended into a vegetative state because of the almost impossible trek to leave his house. Their lack of running water and electricity made it very difficult to sustain a healthy living space. On top of that, they had no access to general physicians or medicine. However, despite all these challenges, they always had big smiles on their faces and laughed as if life was the best that it could be.
MEDLIFE has provided me with many new insights about myself and the world around me. This great organization identifies difficult situations and strives to alleviate the suffering and hardships of many in need. They listen to the community and act upon what needs to be improved rather than rashly barging in and temporarily fixing a problem. With Francisco’s case, the nurses visit him regularly to ensure that he has sufficient medication and knowledge to sustain a stable lifestyle. I hold in high regard one of MEDLIFE’s core goals: to establish the proactiveness and personal sustainability within these great communities. Even though Francisco and his family lack many basic resources, they still strive toward a better and brighter future. After we had finished conversing, I was astonished to learn that he knew some English. As we were leaving, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said two words that deeply touched me, “My friend.” I feel immensely privileged to have been an advocate for MEDLIFE’s mission this summer and hope to return in the near future.