Hi! My name is Michaela Margolis and I’m a sophomore at UIUC. I’m premed and planning on majoring in Human Nutrition. This summer in August, I went on a Medlife trip in Riobamba, Ecuador. It was one of the most amazing and inspiring experiences of my life. I strongly feel that if you have the opportunity to go on a Medlife trip at any point in your college career, you definitely should, maybe even more than once! I not only made a lot of lasting friendships, but I learned a lot about myself and what I’m passionate about. I also learned about how the community members that we visited are negatively affected by their poor way of life, and what Medlife is doing to help them. Everyone I met on the trip had their reasons for going; for me, I wanted to see how less fortunate people live and to be able to give back to them in a way I could directly get satisfaction from. I also hoped that working hands-on with medical professionals and their patients would help verify for me that going into medicine is the right field for me. I can honestly say that the trip did both of these things for me; I found working at the clinics every day extremely satisfying and rewarding. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to see the appreciation from a patient when they have needed medical attention, but haven’t had access to it. When you are giving up your time to provide them with what they need for essentially nothing in return, they are immensely greatful. I also really enjoyed meeting the medical professionals whom we worked with. They were eager to answer our questions and teach us about their fields as we watched them and helped them with their work at the clinics. I was really happy with the amount of medical education I received throughout the trip. I learned so much about dentistry and gynecology, as well as specific issues like arthritis, cancer, parasites, and more, since these were common issues we saw in the patients.
First, here is a little background: I decided pretty last minute to go on this trip, so booking flights was a bit of a nightmare. I recommend starting to book your flight as soon as you sign up for a trip. I had to fly to Miami, Florida, then sleep over that night, then travel to Bogota, Colombia the next morning, and then finally to Quito, Ecuador in the afternoon after a short layover in Colombia. I was lucky enough to befriend another girl going on this trip who lives in Miami, and she let me stay with her during my layover in Miami before going to Colombia. We ended up traveling together the whole way to Quito, and became really good friends! I brought about $250 dollars with me, and when I got home I had about $50 left, but most of my friends used up all of their money, and some even brought more. I didn’t buy that many souvenirs, but for those who did, $250 was enough. We also had to pay for a couple of meals, and many of use bought snacks and loads of water, so that all adds up as well. As far as safety goes, I always went everywhere with at least 3 other people whenever we ventured from the hotel. We had plenty of time to do our own thing and explore the city where we were staying, but at night I tended to stay in because I didn’t feel as safe. Overall, I felt very safe the majority of the time because we mostly went everywhere as a whole Medlife group. Another thing I want to note is that everyone in the group was absolutely freezing the whole time, and you’ll see in my pictures that we were all wearing a lot of layers. This is because our summertime is their wintertime and vice versa, so keep that in mind if you travel. Many of us didn’t bring the proper attire! Okay here is the blog I wrote while I was there. Sorry if any of it was confusing; I tried to edit it as much as possible but as you’ll learn from the blog, we didn’t have much sleep!
Right now I’m on the plane to Bogota, Colombia. The trip will be 3 hours and 15 minutes, then there’s a layover of 2 hours, and then we arrive in Quito, Ecuador. From there, we will wait for the whole MedLife group to meet to get on a bus to Riobamba, which is a four hour bus drive. This flight I’m on left from Miami, Florida, and I stayed there overnight with someone who is also going on the Medlife trip. I met her through the coordinators, and I stayed with her last night since I got to Miami from Chicago at 7pm in order to make this mornings flight. It was hard coordinating flights to Ecuador, so I recommend starting early with booking flights.
Today we slept in until 8:30 after only getting to the hotel at 4Am last night. The bus ride from Quito was 4 hours and I slept for about 2. We waited for a couple of hours in the airport for everyone to arrive so we could drive to Riobamba, which gave us time to meet each other and talk. I really like everyone here, everyone is very eager to make friends and are very open to talking to each other. The majority of people here are pre-med, so it’s nice to talk about what classes we are taking at our different schools, and what our aspirations are. A large number of people are from Florida, a couple of people are from Canada, and the rest of us are pretty much from all over. I’m one of the few who came on my own; most people came with friends or a sibling. I’m rooming with my friend Valeria who I stayed with in Florida during the layover. The rooms here are really nice and the beds are big, but the rooms are really cold at night because there’s no heating. There were a lot of blankets provided from the hotel and many other necessities, which was really nice. We woke up and had breakfast at 9 at a little restaurant around the corner that served fruit, eggs, bread with cheese, coffee, and freshly squeezed cantaloupe juice. After breakfast we hopped on the bus and drove to Guana, which is a beautiful city near Riobamba. Today would be a tourist day, and there are two per trip. We won’t start clinics until tomorrow. After a short bus ride, we climbed these huge man made stairs on the side of a mountain to the top, and took a lot of pictures of the gorgeous city below. We could really see the whole city, all the houses, people, and animals, and the beautiful surrounding mountains. There are mountains basically surrounding us, and they are grassy and hilly and really stunning. The view is gorgeous form wherever you look! We then shopped at the local market, and we all bought little things like bags, bracelets, scarfs, key chains, hats, and other trinkets and souvenirs. Everything was very cheap and it was easy to bargain as well. Then we were taken to a mall for lunch where we ordered classic Ecuadorian food. They also had options like KFC and classic American places to eat, but we wanted to experience their food. The typical food they served was a lot of rice with beans, fried eggs, and steak or pork. We also went to buy bottled water at the mall because the water isn’t safe to drink here. We all bought gallons of water to wash our fruit with and to brush our teeth. Then we came back to the hotel and had time to relax. The hotel had wifi, which was very convenient. With our extra time, I went to a beautiful park that was just 10 minutes away from our hotel with some friends I made. We went on a little boat ride in a small pond and walked around the park. It was so busy and fun because it’s a Sunday, and there were tons of food and trinket vendors. After that, we all met in the lobby for an introduction to what sorts of things we will be doing all week, and for an overview of the stations at the mobile clinics as well. We also were shown our schedules, which we were able to switch around if we wanted to. The schedules showed which clinics we would be working at before and after lunch on ach day (each person switches after lunch), and what day we would be going to work at the project site. After that, we all went to an Italian restaurant for pizza, and then talked and hung out before going to bed.
Today we woke up and had breakfast at 6, as we would every day in order to get an early start for the clinics. We then all got on the bus, collected the clinic equipment from Martha’s apartment (she is the Medlife coordinator for the Riobamba trip), then drove for a little over an hour to the mountains where we would be working. I believe the name of the community was ‘Pull Grande’. The community was very spread out in the deserted mountains, but it was absolutely gorgeous. The people were all wearing ponchos and a lot of beaded jewelry, and they were excited to see us and have us there. We took some time setting up the stations at the buildings, and then people started coming in very quickly. I was at the vitals station, and our job was to work with the Medlife nurse to take height, weight, and temperature, for everyone, and then blood pressure as well for the adults. The community members came to our room very quickly and in large groups, so we had to work really well together. The nurse from Riobamba spoke Spanish, which helped us communicate with the community members, and she was very sweet. Even though I know Spanish pretty well, the way they speak Spanish in the mountains is a bit different, and some of the people laughed at me when I tried to speak! Needless to say I didn’t talk much to the patients, but we were able to communicate through hand gestures. My job was to take the patient’s temperatures as soon as they walked in to make things more efficient. The thermometer was one that you just pass along their foreheads and it reads their temperature. It was hard to breath in the mountains, especially at first, due to the high altitude. Also many of us, including myself, were note used to wearing masks to avoid airborne diseases. After we ate lunch at 12, I was exhausted but excited because my next station was the tooth brushing station. This station was designed to teach children how to brush their teeth properly, and then they were all given brushes and tooth paste. They all found this station really fun and exciting. By the time we had lunch, though, all of the children had been seen, so we just packed up early and went back to the hotel. I went for a run with a friend through the park and it was beautiful, but I found it significantly harder to run because of the higher altitude, which felt really weird! Then we met some people to go shopping in the little souvenir shops by the hotel. There are a lot of shops, restaurants, and clubs by our hotel, and a really nice little train station that is surrounded by food and vendors who stay there all day. It’s pretty busy all the time and a great way to see what the people are like who live here. After shopping, we all met in the lobby to see a Medlife education presentation that I found really eye opening. It spoke about the statistics of disease in the populations that Medlife helps, and talked about what we are doing as an organization to help. Also at the presentation, the dentist, gynecologist, and general practitioner who work with us at the clinics spoke to us and we were able to ask them questions. Our trip intern, named Kristen, would translate what they said in Spanish for us. We then went to an Ecuadorian restaurant for dinner. The trip coordinator was very accommodating to those who have special dietary needs. There are always options for vegetarians despite the meat-heavy plates of food everyone else receives. After dinner we all got ready and went out for karaoke at a local karaoke/bar and had a lot of fun. We all went to bed late, but had a great time so it didn’t matter.
Today we woke up tired but excited to go to a new station for the mobile clinic. We drove for about 1.5 hours and arrived at the community, which I think was called Palacio Guatana. We set up the stations and I was assigned the doctor station. I absolutely loved it. The doctor was so nice and told us what was happening with each patient and why. I know Spanish pretty well from taking 4 years in high school, so I could understand pretty well what he was saying. For those who don’t know Spanish, the intern helped translate for them, or she made sure to pair up a fluent speaker with someone who was not. Many other problems we saw with the doctor were arthritis from all the agricultural work they do, acid reflux or gas because they don’t make a lot of money and then they spend tat little money on cheap food like sofa, candies, and chocolate, and lastly many of their ears weren’t clean, so they had ear aches or hearing issues. I really enjoyed having the time to talk to him and ask him questions and be so individual and hands on with the patients. They clearly really appreciated his help and how nice he was. He was also very eager to teach us and take the time to explain things. After lunch I went to visit a few different stations, I went to gynecology and dentist station. I watched the gynecologist give pap smears and many of the women had inflammation in their cervix. I also saw some early signs of cancer. I really enjoyed seeing everything first-hand. The dentist pulled out a lot of teeth and filled cavities using local anesthetic. I got pretty light headed watching him pull out so many teeth from children, but it was a good experience! After he was finished, we packed everything away and drive back to the hotel and relaxed until dinner.
Today we drove about an hour to a new community called Guacana San V. The community was smaller than the last two, so we saw a lot less people and it was less hectic. The location was really beautiful, as usual. It was in the mountains, but near a lot of bright green farmland, and there was more unspoiled land. The kids were really cute, and we had time to play soccer with them when we were done. We also drew on the sidewalk with chalk with them while they waited for their parents at the doctor stations. I was assigned the education station, so we played informative videos as well as handed out pamphlets to the members of the community. The videos were about nutrition, women’s gynecological health, heart health, and overall hygiene. The community members are required to watch these videos and receive the pamphlets before going to any of the other stations, so many of them were eager to get the videos done and leave the station. It was difficult to keep some of them in the room, especially with the language barrier! After lunch, we packed up and went back to the hotel. We relaxed in our rooms, and I went on a walk with some friends. For dinner, we were taken to an Ecuadorian restaurant that had really nice food. We came back to the hotel afterwards and just hung out. I went with some people to a little ice-cream place down the road from the hotel, and then I went to bed.
Today we woke up early as usual and everyone went on the bus together for a tourism day. We started off by going to the first ever Catholic Church built in Ecuador. It was really old looking and beautiful. We all bought beautiful handmade ponchos and sweaters because it was absolutely freezing. I bought an alpaca sweater. Then we got back on the bus and were driven to a gorgeous farm in the mountains. There we learned that the farm was built in 1893 by a Spaniard who would use slaves on the vast property for free labor. The slaves rebelled fiercely and over the years seized a lot of the land. It used to be around 300 acres but is now only about 80. The property is now mainly used for tourism, although it still acts as a farm. We were taken on a walking tour around the land and saw the animals like cows, alpacas, llamas, roosters, and sheep. We also got to see the green house, which housed many medicinal plants and herbs. Once the tour was over, we were then driven to a vegetable market deeper into the city. It was extremely crowded and overwhelming; there were tons of vendors selling food and jewelry, and people were walking all over the place. After walking around for about an hour, we ate lunch on the bus and went to visit a school that medlife has built for a community in the mountains. It was amazing to see the beautiful school in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It’s amazing to think that if it weren’t for our organization, the people there that are so far from a city wouldn’t have access to education for their children. We took pictures with the school and then left for our last stop. Our last stop was an animal farm that had cows, donkeys, sheep, and pigs. We were given the opportunity to ride the cows and donkeys, and even to milk the cows. I milked the cow and it was such a weird feeling! Unfortunately it’s tail wacked me in the face while I was milking him, so I stopped doing that pretty quickly. After everyone who wanted to ride the horse had his or her chance, we got on the bus to ride back to the hotel. We were all exhausted and ready for a nap! I relaxed and watched TV with some friend, and then we all were taken to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. I went to bed really early after dinner because all of the activity was making me tired and giving me a headache.
Today we slept in an extra hour before going to the last community. This community was where the project site was taking place. The project was to help the community members build a bathroom. You may have noticed I didn’t include a blog of a project day because I let someone else take my project day. I wanted an extra day to work with patients instead of doing manual labor. This was a smaller community than usual, but the people were the most appreciative by far. I worked at the dentist station, which was really cool because the doctor was very sweet to the kids and really helped explain things to us as he went along. Our jobs were to hand him tools, clean the tools, and then fill out the patient’s sheets with whatever diagnosis and treatment they were given. I really enjoyed his busy station. Many of the community members have many teeth problems, so it was obvious that his work was extremely important and appreciated. There were a lot of cavities to be filled and infected teeth that had to be pulled. He explained to us that there are three types of cavities, each one deeper and more severe than the next. The more severe types he could not treat and instead had to tell the patient that they had to go to a hospital. After my shift was over, I helped at the vitals station a little. After almost everyone had been seen, most of us began playing with the kids and taking pictures. We played ball with them, and they taught us how to play some of their hand games! They absolutely loved playing with us and they were such sweet kids! The whole experience was really amazing and so cute! After all the doctors were done and we had cleaned up, the community president thanked us deeply for providing health care for the members. His speech was really touching. He explained that they understand how important health and education are, but are unable to access it easily. It was one of the best experiences of my life feeling so appreciated and being able to make such a direct difference in people’s lives. Then, the children put on a little dance for us. They did a traditional dance to Ecuadorian music for. As we left, the members gave us each a bag of cooked beans and potatoes as an additional thank you. I tried them and they were actually really good! They used beans from their trees and potatoes that they grow. We left the community pretty late, around 3, which was later than usual. We got back to the hotel and relaxed until diner. We went to an Italian pizza place for dinner, and everyone got wood roasted pizzas that looked delicious. We then went back to our hotel to pack since we leave Riobamba tomorrow, and were then taken to a club across the street. We all danced and went crazy since the drinking age is 18, and then came back ad went to bed.
Today we packed up all our things, ate breakfast, and put our luggage on the bus. We left for Rhioverda at 8 to visit a famous and beautiful waterfall. We hiked down the mountain to see the beautiful waterfall and got soaking wet from it! It was so fun and worth the trek; the view was breathtaking. We all took a lot of pictures and videos. After the difficult hike back up, we got back on the bus to go to the city called Baños. It was really busy and there were tons of vendors selling clothes, candy, sugarcane, jewelry, and little Ecuadorian souvenirs. Things were very cheap. We also ate lunch there. Four friends and I went to a really great restaurant that served us South American foods for a really cheap price and quick service! The classic foods were things like steak, eggs, rice, and salad all on one huge plate! I got a delicious lentil soup and small salad. They tend to serve a lot of black beans and lentil dishes here as well, which was perfect for me because I won’t eat meat. We walked around for about 2 hours before getting back on the bus. Some of the vendors were selling real sugarcane and I got to try some but I actually didn’t like it! I thought it was too sweet and had a weird texture! We were supposed to go somewhere near Banos where we would have the opportunity to go bungee jumping, but we didn’t have time to go. We had to leave for Quito get to the airport, and the airport was around a 5 hour drive away. We left at 4 for Quito, went to the airport to drop people off that had early flights, then went to a hotel in Quito to stay at until our flights the next day. The hotel was an hour drive from the airport. Unfortunately this bus drive lasted nearly 8 hours because of traffic and 2 car accidents, but we eventually made it to the hotel and went straight to bed.
Today we woke up in the hotel in Quito near the airport. Four friends and I decided to wake up really early so we would have time to visit the equator and a volcano before our fights to Colombia. We took a taxi together and the driver agreed to take us to the volcano and equator. We first went to the volcano, which was called Pululahua. It was really a stunning view. We were at the top of a mountain looking over the area around the volcano. It was cool to see how the population had turned the area around the now inactive volcano into a farm area. It was very green and fresh looking, and the view was really spectacular. After that, we went to the equator. I didn’t know what to expect but it was a really amazing experience! We took a tour of the very center of the earth, and our tour guide showed us how at this point, there are a few special things that happen. One of the things was that if you place one foot on the North side of the line, and one on the South side, and place an egg on a nail head, it will stand upright because gravity is so strong at that point. Also, water will drain straight down on the line, but will spin in opposite directions to the left and right of the center of the earth. It was really amazing to see and I’m so happy we woke up early to experience that! The tour was about an hour long and we saw a lot of other things at the outdoor museum about the history of the equator. After the tour was done, we met our taxi and he took us back to the hotel where we ate lunch. Then we packed our things together and headed to the airport. I flew back the same way I came, so I first went to Colombia, then Miami, Florida, then back to Chicago.