When people would ask me what I would be doing in Ecuador, I would have a conversation that looked like something like this:
Me: “I’m working at a public health clinic in a low-income neighborhood in Guayaquil!”
Other people: “Wow, that’s so cool. But what are you going to do?”
Me: No response.
I feel as if international service has such a nice ring to it, in that people who hear you talk about it think it is really fun and easy to perform service. Wake up in the morning, work for 4 hours, save a couple of lives, then go home and do it all again for two months.
This “story” of international service could not be farther from the truth as I’m sure many of my fellow DukeEngagers have known. One of the strongest emotions I’ve felt throughout my service has been a feeling of helplessness, that I think can be common among young students doing service, especially in a foreign country.
After the first day I was worried that the rest of my two months would be spent observing people in pain in a public health clinic. I was lucky to be wrong and got into a rhythm of taking weight, height, blood pressure, and other measurements for patients between 8:00 AM and 3:30 PM. I was happy to interact with patients and over time develop relationships with those I saw frequently, even though that usually meant they had more medical issues than those I didn’t see more than once. I also enjoyed the fact that the clinic actually had a use for me that involved me being helpful rather than a burden. I felt much less like a tourist and more as an actual member of the clinic working staff.
It was taught on the first day of DukeEngage Academy that the people who live in the community have a much better understanding of how things work. I’m glad this was an early lesson, so I was able to apply it later on in my service.
A couple of weeks in on a Monday, the clinic’s busiest day, a young kid hobbled into the clinic with blood running down his leg from a dog bite. The community the clinic is in has a stray dog problem even after many vaccination campaigns, so the director led the kid into our preparation room where Michael and I were sitting. The nurses were busy with vaccinations, so we had to wait until the wound could be observed and cleaned. At one point, he tried to leave, but we convinced him to wait a little longer. Fifteen minutes later, the nurse was still busy, and the kid had started limping out of the clinic. All the doctors were busy, so I called the director to try to help me stop the patient, but she said she couldn’t do anything about it. One of the doctors was about to get him, but noticed he was going across the basketball courts to an area with benches shaded by a tree. Once the doctor saw that, he told me that the boy was a most likely going there to use drugs and there was nothing he could do. In that moment I felt like running after the patient to convince him to come back so that his wound wouldn’t get infected. I was shocked that no one seemed to want to help him. After the boy was gone, the day went on like normal, and the kid came back the next day with his parents and dried blood still on his leg. The wound was cleaned and luckily he was perfectly fine.
After a situation that seemed so dramatic to me, I learned that I would be helpless a lot while working at the clinic. This is not a bad thing, but something to understand. I realized to mitigate this feeling, I would need to put a lot more trust in the doctors of the community instead of thinking about what I thought should be done. It was taught on the first day of DukeEngage Academy that the people who live in the community have a much better understanding of how things work. I’m glad this was an early lesson, so I was able to apply it later on in my service.
As a side note, I feel as if through these two stories I portrayed my service site as a place of endless action where patients come in with intense medical issues that need immediate attention. This is far from the truth. All advanced medical procedures go to hospitals in the city, where doctors are available. Most patients who come into the clinic have a slight fever, cough, or just want a simple check up. Most of my daily interactions are simple conversations that last about 5 minutes for each patient as Michael and I calmly take their measurements. I felt like my most conflicting emotions had come from these two experiences mentioned above, where I was far out of my comfort zone.