2-year-old Gabriel* squealed in delight as he lunged for the sunglasses that dangled from my outstretched hand. He missed by a few inches, and it was then that I realized that he could not crawl. As he squirmed on the treatment table, I listened in on the conversation behind me between Gabriel’s mother and my supervising physical therapist. Through my eavesdropping, and my very limited understanding of conversational Spanish, I learned that many mothers in that part of Mexico are fearful of allowing their children on the ground due to dirtiness. This prevents babies from ever being able to learn how to crawl, which can be very dangerous for a child in that stage of development. I revered physical therapy prior to this instance, but Gabriel ignited in me an even greater passion for research in rural communities and enhancing my understanding of holistic care- including prevention- locally and around the world.
My medical mission trip to Mexico was the most humbling experience of my education so far, but not for reasons you might expect…
As my trip in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico progressed, I espied conditions similar in severity to Gabriel’s- wholly absent from my observations in the U.S. I was humbled not by poor health conditions in Mexico, but instead by how uninformed I was regarding the spectrum of issues worldwide. Shadowing had not prepared me for the unfortunate realities of what I was going to encounter. Inadequate dietary education and lack of clean drinking water resulted in diabetes and subsequent amputations. Amputees were solely reliant on donated, ill-fitting prosthetics to continue jobs for too-low pay (during my time in Mexico, I spent a day with the physical therapist sorting through all of the donated materials and came across three prosthetic legs- none of which would end up being an exact fit for any of our patients). Mental illness exacerbated these conditions; stigma discouraged treatment. I was overcome with anger at the conditions and sadness at their pain. Even so, every patient met me with a hug and a “Cómo estás, senorita!?” Patients spoke more about their hobbies than physical ailments. The children who played at El Lápiz, the park where we set up our our makeshift medical clinic, kept us engaged for at least an hour as we tried to figure out whether they were actually helping us to translate phrases from English, or if they were trying to trick us into saying something inappropriate (turns out “pegatina” really does mean “sticker.”) As I reflect on my trip, I continue to be humbled not by the misguided notion that Puerto Peñasco is a town to be saved or molded to fit American norms, but rather by the optimism in a community faced with health issues that even the most rural towns in the States may never see.
While the residents of Puerto Peñasco work to create more nutritive living conditions, I am encouraged by their stories and their hope for better health. As our week in Mexico came to a close, I reflected on my experiences and how they were truly an inspiration and a confirmation of my desire to pursue physical therapy. I’m looking forward to hopefully returning to the same area next spring to continue my work, reconnect with my pen pal from the trip (major apologies to her, by the way- I was supposed to respond to her last letter over a month ago), and maybe even see some familiar faces down in Mexico. While in the States, I’m looking forward to doing more volunteer work in rural communities to try to implement what I learn into my studies and my practice, particularly via research and mental health advocacy. I’ve learned that research in rural communities is crucial to combat issues of access, transportation, diet, and mental illness. Gabriel, and the many others I met in Mexico, have deepened my compassion and understanding and, although I have much to learn, I feel better equipped to interact with a variety of communities. Thinking about this trip now, I am that much more excited and, of course, humbled, to get to Duke next fall and begin my physical therapy education.
*This little guy’s name has been changed to protect the privacy of the family.
Want to go on a medical mission trip like the one I did? Check out International Service Learning, where you can not only sign up to volunteer in different locations, but you can also specify your specific interests (dentistry, physical therapy, public health, nursing, etc.) and work on the corresponding team once you get to your destination!
If you have any questions or comments about my volunteer experiences, be sure to post them below!