Seeking sustainable solutions abroad during med school

Peru, clinic, global health

Joseph Brown at the clinic in Kacllaraccay, Peru, where he volunteered. Photo from Joseph Brown.

Last year, Joseph Brown was working in a tiny emergency room with a single lamp—a lamp he said received electricity about 80 percent of the time. He treated malnutrition, the affects of polio, back pain and wounds from bull goring. After taking a year off from medical school to volunteer in Peru, Brown is encouraging other medical students to gain firsthand global health experiences, too.

Brown and fellow student Nicki Araneta described their decisions to take a year off from their studies at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine on Tuesday during a presentation sponsored by Feinberg’s Center for Global Health & the Global Health Initiative. Both also gave tips and encouragement to a room packed with medical faculty and students fresh from class.

Although their experiences varied in structure, both Brown and Araneta said they wanted to participate in programs that would create a sustainable, positive impact in the communities they served.

Araneta, who plans on going into family medicine, decided to journey to Guatemala. During her search for a program that would allow her to improve her Spanish and work in an underserved area, Araneta said she was careful to select a local program rather than a short-term medical service trip. “We all know now that when these [short-term] trips are done poorly they can have a negative impact on the community,” she said.

Instead, Araneta volunteered for seven months at Asociación Pop Wuj, a Spanish school in Quetzaltenango, or Xela, Guatemala. Araneta also spent time volunteering at a small hospital, Hospitalito Atitlan, and acting as a health advocate.

Peru, clinic, global health

The trail to the clinic in Kacllaraccay. Photo from Joseph Brown.

Brown took a different approach to his year abroad.

“For me, I really wanted to see what it was like to start with a project from the ground up,” he said. Brown partnered up with a program called Crescendos Alliance, which he found while browsing the web one day during lecture.

Through Crescendos, Brown worked in the town of Maras, Peru and the tiny village of Kacllaraccay (don’t bother searching for it on Google Maps- it’s too small). In Kacllaraccay, Brown spent the majority of his stay preparing the village’s new clinic for the next set of volunteers. This included painting the clinic, wrangling medical supplies from the mayor of Maras, developing baseline health information for the town and building a relationship of trust with locals.

Brown said he hung out with the people of Kacllaraccay whenever he could to demonstrate that the clinic and its services would be in the village for the long haul.

Strong financial and academic support from Northwestern helped make their experiences a reality, said Brown and Araneta. Both encouraged the medical students in the audience to take advantage of such support.

While Araneta and Brown have no immediate plans to return to their sites, both hope to return someday. “Whenever residency allows,” Brown said.

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