Maria Chavez, 32, has worked for MEDLIFE Ecuador for five years. She treats her role as a Follow-Up Patient Coordinator like she is raising a child. She nurtures her connections, hones her patience, and holds hands wherever she goes.
When I sat down to speak with her about her involvement in the organization, she wore a a navy blue bomber jacket. A MEDLIFE logo patch is sewn onto the left-hand side by her collarbone. As she speaks, she holds her hands palm to palm as if praying. She is petite, a little over five feet tall, and rosy cheeked. A smattering of freckles trail down her tan, slender face and slightly downturned nose. She wears no makeup. Her nails are kept short. On a typical day, her shoes are well-worn chunky, black construction boots.
Maria found out about MEDLIFE in her own rural community, Cebadas, an hour outside of Riobamba. A woman who lived on the outskirts of town was suffering from a thyroid tumor, and when MEDLIFE arrived for a Mobile Clinic, Executive Director Nick Ellis was the first to treat her condition.
“I liked the help that this woman received from the foundation. Before [MEDLIFE] she didn’t have any help…The foundation has a really human touch, and so I like the way they work,” Maria explained.
In fact, she was impressed enough by the services to ask for a position herself.
After a patient attends a Mobile Clinic in Ecuador, and a doctor determines that further treatment is needed, Maria is the one that stands by his or her side. She attends doctor’s appointments and accompanies patients before, during, and after procedures, in addition to answering follow-up questions throughout the entire process. Essentially, Maria plays the role of a family member that we all wish we had during stressful times — brimming with knowledge and patience.
Growing up in Cebadas with three older brothers, Maria was raised on the peaceful rolling hills and small town lifestyle that dominates the indigenous rural communities of the Chimborazo region. But at only ten years old, tragedy struck. Her father passed away.
Maria sits with her arms crossed as if she is chilled. She suddenly begins to tear up at the memory, wetting her long, black eyelashes and wrinkling her wispy black eyebrows. She says that she does not like to remember the death.
After sniffling, Maria adds that “The support of my mother has been really important for me. Even though she was a widower, she knew how to cope and fight for her children.”
Maria sites her mother as a driving inspirational force in her life to support others. Due to her mother’s persistence, she was able to attend high school and college in Riobamba. Amidst her studies, she helped her mother farm the land and sell milk to make ends meet.
If anyone knows what patients who seek help from MEDLIFE Ecuador are going through, it’s Maria. Living in an isolated community during rough periods, whether emotional or physical, can take a large toll. A majority of MEDLIFE Ecuador’s patients hail from indigenous communities hours outside of Riobamba, with little access to hygiene facilities, basic health care, and education.
For Maria, her passion for her job is obvious. “I identify more with these types of people,” she says.
Maria says that being in the field is truly about helping the kind of people she grew up with that she sees struggling. She describes them as “very humble” and “very grateful.”
“Every time that we tell them to go to an appointment, they go, and they are always thanking us for the work that we do,” she continues.
It’s an added bonus that Maria speaks the local indigenous language, Quichua. If you listen closely, her Spanish is imbued with it’s whispery tones.
“When I speak in their language, they can identify with me and are more open to talk about their problems,” Maria explains of patient relations. It is not foreign for her to quickly switch to Quichua during emotional conversations with fretting parents in a hospital waiting room.
When I ask her about a specific patient case that truly struck her, she replies that all of them have affected her deeply. She cannot choose just one. Above all, for her, it’s about treating someone physically and psychologically with the kindness of a family member.
She even pesters those who are reluctant to attend appointments, and accompanies individuals to fill their prescriptions to make sure they understand what they are being treated with, and how often they need to take their medications in order for them to be effective.
“For me, the relationships with patients are important because the doctors can see them only once in the Mobile Clinics, but we need to keep working with them to make sure that they carry out their treatments,” Maria says. At MEDLIFE, we actually “worry about whether or not the patients get better,” she adds.
Today, Maria lives with her husband Juan Pablo and their two sons, Carlos, 9, and Pablo, 2. As she speaks of her family, she flashes a wide smile and excitedly rattles off stories of her sons antics on their small farm in Cebadas. Her husband works in agriculture, and her sons do extremely well in school, she says. She beams with pride.
Rachel Hoffman is a year-long media intern at MEDLIFE working out of Riobamba, Ecuador