Culture of health: Feinberg students study medicine, Spanish in Guatemala

Cheng plays with children at the "guarderia," a daycare center, while their mothers work. Source: Joanne Kim

When Anthony Cheng and Joanne Kim arrived in Guatemala at the end of January, they knew their trip wasn’t just another hospital rotation. The fourth year Feinberg students spent a month at the Pop Wuj Spanish School, where they worked in a clinic, practiced medical Spanish, lived with local families and participated in various community projects.

“The program pushes you beyond your comfort zone,” Cheng said. Pop Wuj, located in the highlands of Guatemala, has a medical clinic that primarily serves indigenous people who live in the surrounding rural areas.

Kim and Cheng took medical Spanish classes and worked in the clinic two to three times per week, performing triage, filling prescriptions and shadowing doctors.

“The biggest health challenge facing the community was malnutrition,” Cheng said. “Everyone was stunted, and the condition was not genetic.”

Although residents grow diverse plants and vegetables for export, their diet mainly consists of beans, potatoes and tortillas. “They had all these eggplants but didn’t know what to do with them,” Cheng said.

The pair helped lead a cooking class and taught residents how to prepare eggplant ratatouille, encouraging participants to incorporate local nutritional products into their diet. “You have to show them what you’re doing in order to have the greatest impact,” Kim said.

Outside of the clinic, the Feinberg students helped locals build stoves in their homes to replace fire pits. Most people used open flames to cook in their one-room homes, Kim said. She volunteered to talk to the community about the health benefits of stoves.

Guatemalan women unload supplies for the stove project. Source: Joanne Kim

“They reduce smoke-related illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and acute respiratory illness, and they make homes safer places for children,” she said.

Cheng told locals about the economic benefits. “We would see 6 year old boys hiking up the mountain with firewood strapped to their heads,” he said. “The stoves are more efficient and use half as much wood, so people make fewer trips and there’s less deforestation.”

While the stove project is an ongoing effort, Kim and Cheng helped install about 15 during their stay.

In addition to practicing language and medical skills, the students learned about Guatemalan history and culture to help them better understand their patients. “The people of Guatemala have had such an awful history,” Cheng said. “I felt a sense of obligation to help, and I understood that each patient wasn’t just another human body.”

While Kim and Cheng have settled back into their courses and are preparing to graduate, they both hope to maintain a connection with Pop Wuj. They served a benefit dinner last month and invited guests to donate money they would have used to splurge on a night out. They raised $430 to send to their colleagues in Guatemala.

Kim and Cheng, both specializing in family medicine, said their experiences will help them work with minority populations in the future, whether in the United States or abroad.

While Pop Wuj is not currently affiliated with Northwestern, the pair said they would recommend the program to other Feinberg students.

Kim, left, and Cheng, right, share a moment with their Spanish teachers. Source: Joanne Kim

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