Volunteers Around the World: Alternative Service Break in Peru

July 29, 2019

This summer break, I spent two weeks leading my Georgia Tech peers on a medical outreach trip to Cusco, Peru through Georgia Tech’s Student Organization Volunteers Around the World (VAW). Cusco is an absolutely beautiful city situated in southeast Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. The overall objective of the trip was to create and manage pop-up medical clinics in the nearby rural villages. Along the way, we were able to learn about various Peruvian medical practices and immerse ourselves into the Peruvian culture. As a Team Lead, I had extra responsibilities such as planning trip logistics and excursions, communicating with another Team Leader and the Site Coordinator, organizing clinic days, and solving any issues as they arose. 

The pop-up medical clinics were stationed in two places, an elderly home in Cusco city and a rural town about an hour away from the city. The clinics consisted of four stations-intake, vitals, consultation, and pharmacy. During intake, we interviewed patients in order to record certain personal information and medical history as many patients could not write. We quickly realized that patient medical history was sparse and any family history of diabetes, cancer, etc. was simply nonexistent. Often times, they wouldn’t even know their exact age or birthday. In vitals, we were responsible for checking everything from a patient’s temperature to their blood glucose level. The information was recorded in a computerized system for the doctors to access. In consultation, we were responsible for shadowing and helping Peruvian physicians. Based on the data collected in vitals and on the patient’s signs and symptoms, we were often able to diagnose and treat them. The most common issue was certainly anemia, followed by diabetes. Overall, it was clear that there was a lack of nutrition. Patients also came in with various muscle aches and heart issues. Although medication was limited, each patient was given a prescription to receive medicine from the pharmacy in clinic, even if all they received were vitamin tablets. Hence, the pharmacy was responsible for collecting the patient’s prescription and sending them home with medication. These clinics were completely free for all patients. The volunteers and other donations covered all the medical costs.

Although clinic did run fairly smoothly, there was a clear language barrier. In fact most of the patients as well as the site coordinators only spoke Spanish. Those who didn’t speak Spanish, spoke an ancient Peruvian language known as Quechua. In that case, site coordinators or doctors were available to communicate with the patients. Luckily, many of the volunteers did have experience with Spanish and were able to effectively communicate. Those who didn’t resorted to body language. 

Since VAW believes that education is the sustainable way to better health outcomes, we were responsible for one health education day where we traveled to a shelter which housed young mothers and children. We used this opportunity to foster love and strength among the mothers while educating them on life beyond the closed doors of the shelter. Additionally, we briefly touched on topics such as options for contraception and hygiene. The presentation was almost completely in Spanish. We also spent time playing soccer and tag with the children as well as folding an origami fortune teller filled with nutrition facts! At the end, everyone received basic hygiene goody bags which included toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by an Atlanta dentist, towelettes, and a small toy. 

In addition to the clinic days and health education day, we were able to tour healthcare centers in both Cusco city and Occupata, a rural town in Cusco. We also went on a nature hike where a professor explained to us the homeopathic remedies of certain plants along the way. Lastly, we attended a lecture by a doctor who educated us on the Peruvian healthcare system. Overall, the experience was quite eye-opening. The differences between the Peruvian healthcare system and the United States healthcare system were astounding. Hence, our members left Peru wondering how and when healthcare would improve in Cusco, Peru. Despite VAWs effort, there is still much work to be done. 

Lastly, our limited free time was spent visiting historic sites in downtown Cusco, riding horses near archeological sites, visiting ancient Incan structures (Ollantaytambo and Pisac), as well as hiking through Machu Picchu and Lake Humantay. We were also able to try typical Peruvian food and drinks such as guinea pig, alpaca, Chicha Morada, Pisco Sour, and Muña tea. At night, we came home to our host families, who were gracious enough to house us, and ate typical homemade Peruvian food!

VAW at Georgia Tech offers three international medical service outreach trips each year. Look out for information on our upcoming winter and summer break trips coming soon! Please email gtvaw.president@gmail.com or visit our website (gtvaw.weebly.com) for additional information. I highly recommend students from any major or background to apply for future trips!