Volunteer Name: Rebekka Merrifield
Project Location: La Ceiba, Honduras
Volunteered at: PreMed/PreNurse/PreDental
1- How was the local ABV Coordinator and the support provided in-country?
I actually stayed at my coordinator’s house, which actually benefitted me greatly. Don Rafa is genuinely interested in your well being and tries to manage the chaos that often goes on in getting everyone where they need to be. He drove us everywhere, something not included in the program, and made sure that we were always happy with our projects. He works the politics for you in the administration of the hospital so that you can just go and enjoy being a volunteer.
2- What was the most surprising thing you experienced?
When I arrived, it seemed as though the program hit a snag in the main hospital, and that set us back quite a bit in the shadowing area. However, it is important to realize that you need to be proactive as a volunteer to get the most out of the time that you spend in country. The program ranges from vaccinating in the streets to shadowing and learning to do new things. Never wait for someone to tell you what to do. I learned that if you actively ask people what they need, or just be ready with gloves, you will get to do a lot more. I love Honduras. The people are so welcoming. Often when we were vaccinating, we were invited in for Coca Cola and snacks. On the medical side, there is very little public health or information about chronic diseases. People often don’t see the value in vaccinating or controlling their hypertension or diabetes. As a result, I unfortunately saw a lot of diabetic foot amputations and illnesses that could have been more easily controlled if people understood their illness more. There is so much need here. I didn’t realize that people had to buy their own medications before receiving treatment. In the US, people can go bankrupt from medical bills. Here they just don’t receive the treatment because there are no supplies. It’s a sad moment when you ration gauze on an overnight shift because you know you don’t have any more coming in. But that being said, the doctors here have become incredibly ingenious in maneuvering around their lack of supplies and often make do with what they have. You can learn a lot from people that practice medicine with less supplies.
3- What was most difficult to experience?
As I mentioned before, the lack of supplies and low socioeconomic status of many of the patients was heartbreaking. There is also a lot of pesudomedicine that goes on in the hospital that is often hard to understand. Like nurses telling delivering moms that if they scream, it will kill their baby. Or using water instead of alcohol because alcohol “makes the bad germs stick.” It’s important to realize these differences and just allow the doctors to practice as they normally would and not criticize them in front of patients. The poverty here is astounding and can often break your heart. People can’t afford supplies and the hospital doesn’t have anything to give them. ALSO: I would recommend not directly donating a lot of your supplies in the beginning. Instead, keep them with you and use them when you’re treating patients. This way you can be assured that the supplies are being given free of charge to patients who would have otherwise had to buy their supplies.
4- Any tips for future volunteers… (Clothing, travel, personal items, donations)
It’s hot- dress appropriately! A white coat means you’re a doctor, so wear it according to who you want to be recognized as. Scrubs are a really good idea. Donations: Gauze like there’s no tomorrow! Also sterile gloves! They prefer to use sterile gloves in the hospital for procedures like sutures or putting a catheter in. They don’t use bandaids here, so don’t bring them. Bring surgical tape or scissors. Get a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope for the old hospital if you work there in the mornings.
5- Personal Paragraph (ABV Program Testimonial):
a.- A lot of the volunteers found it beneficial to bring snacks and then buy some once you are here. The mall has a supermarket inside, but it is fairly expensive. Snacks are good when meals are far apart, or you are walking a lot. b.- Take initiative! If a medical student (who basically function as doctors here) asks you to do a night shift with them, do it! I learned that a lot of the times, I wouldn’t be invited into a situation. If you don’t offer any expertise to the situation, why would they bring you in? You have to make your way in and get to know the people. That way you can ask to shadow doctors in the OR or Labor and Delivery (which were generally more difficult to get into.) c.- Don’t do a procedure that you don’t feel comfortable doing. Just because these patients live in a third world country, that doesn’t make them guinea pigs for inexperienced undergraduate premedical students. Ask first to be taught, then do the procedure under supervision. Many of the med students love to teach and quite a few of them speak really great English! It’s really fun! d.- Smile at the patients! It seems often in the hospital and the clinic that there is a sense of efficiency that goes with treatment. That’s to say that doctors don’t always have great bedside manner because they are often swarmed with patients who can’t afford supplies. It’s very stressful. Taking the time to ask a patient how they are doing and smile at them (even if you can’t communicate in Spanish with them) makes them feel so much more comfortable.
6- How would you describe your accommodation, meals, security (e: host family, on-site, shared)
This experienced has made me appreciate what kind of medicine is available in different areas of the world. In my four weeks here, I have grown to love and respect the doctors working in both the clinic and the hospital and their resourcefulness and resilience in the face of seeming overwhelming odds. The Honduran people are often so welcoming and appreciative of any help that you give, it is amazing to me. I have been taught so many different procedures from putting in a catheter to suturing to palpating the abdomen or listening to different lung sounds. It’s amazing what you can learn in such a short amount of time. I want to come back once I’ve finished with medical school so that I can help more efficiently.
7- What was your favorite memory of this trip?
The accommodations were great! Meals were sometimes new foods that I had never tried, but I would encourage everyone to eat everything that they serve you! I never felt insecure here- we went out at night and walked around the city and there was never any problem.
8- How was the ABV USA support prior traveling?
Program: My favorite memory was getting to help intubate an elderly patient with Dr. Martinez (whom I refer to as Santa). It was such a terrifying moment, but he was so comfortable and jolly that it was a great experience! Country: Cayos Cochinos was an amazing experience! As was zip-lining “canopy” and the hot springs. It was well worth going!
9 – Are you willing to speak to other potential ABV volunteers?
They always responded very promptly and answered all questions fully. Even during the program, I had concerns and was answered almost immediately.
10 – Are you willing to speak to other potential ABV volunteers?