Rachel's Crew

The group in La Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua after serving over 100 patients in 8 hours at a local clinic. From left: Rachel Weigert, Kristine Anderson, Claire Campbell, Allie Ellingson, Janaki Paskaradevan, Michelle Holman.

Forget school and get to work.

That’s what my friend Rachel did last August. As a Biology Major and Spanish Studies Minor at the University of Minnesota, she led a group of fellow pre-med students to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for some valuable hands-on experience. They volunteered for two weeks at local clinics in Varablanca, Ometepe Island, and Masaya.

Their preparation? Minimal. When they arrived, they were given three hours of medical training and a short Spanish lesson.

The facilities were equally modest. The clinics were based out of churches and community centers that Rachel described as little more than “cinder-block buildings with corrugated tin roofs.”

This was no Mayo Clinic. “All we had were the basic medical supplies we brought with us, a few chairs, and some small tables,” she said. “We usually used a makeshift table as an exam table, and did pap smears on a child’s bed at a house.”

Despite the primitive surroundings, the clinics were not disorderly. Local, medically trained staff supervised Rachel’s group at each center.

“[The staff] were great at making everyone feel comfortable,” Rachel said.

I asked her if anything was particularly challenging.

“With the people, no. It was difficult to get used to the new critters, and the fact that I hadn’t brought warm clothes didn’t help—it was pretty chilly up in the mountains of Vara Blanca,” she said.

Although the students worked hard, they also got to play. On days off, the group toured churches and cities, shopped co-ops, swam lagoons and volcanic springs, and zip-lined through the jungle. Some even bungee jumped.

Part of what inspires students to ditch their schooling and volunteer abroad is the chance to test themselves in the field. Rachel forwarded me a few pages from her journal. On August 11th, she wrote:

I just remembered that this was the day that I gave my first injection. It was a diclofenac sodium in the butt for a guy who had severe sciatic nerve pain. I also placed acupuncture needles and removed them. The whole experience was really cool, and I learned a lot about how to give an injection (insert needle, pull up a little to see if there’s blood, inject, remove at a 90 degree angle, and apply pressure.) In the end the patient said that his back felt, “superbueno” which made me feel great.*

Rachel organized the trip through Volunteers for Intercultural and Definitive Adventures (VIDA), a non-profit humanitarian volunteer program that is not affiliated with the University. “There are hundreds of websites where you can find trips similar to this,” she said. “But I searched for months and this was by far the most flexible and affordable. And you didn’t have to speak Spanish to go.”

*Correction: On March 3rd, this quote read “Docusate Sodium,” which is a stool softener. The patient was actually given “Diclofenac Sodium,” an analgesic.