By: Jose Rodriguez, MD
I have had many blessings in my life—my wife (top of the list), her family, my family, and our family. We have not always had the blessing to live close to family, which means that our vacation time is used almost exclusively to visit family in Ecuador, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Our summer vacation for 2018 was no different. We visited with some of our family in Florida and then continued on to Ecuador—to visit my wife’s family, as well as the orphanage where we adopted my youngest daughter, Hogar Para Sus Niños. And while we were there, we took some time off with my sister-in-law, my wife, and my teenage son Daniel to go visit the Galapagos Islands. I wanted to see the penguins!
We are fortunate to be able to do this, and I wish more people had these opportunities. This time, however, we decided that when we went, we would take some time and resources to help improve the lives of some residents of the country we visited.
Ten years ago, I took some medical students with me to visit my wife’s hometown, San Pedro de Alausí, located on the Pan-American highway, at the halfway point between Quito and Cuenca. It is a small hamlet of 15,000 inhabitants, home to the Hogar de Ancianos San Pedro de Alausí, (a retirement home) as well as the world-famous train to visit Nariz del Diablo mountain. After that trip, I wrote a story about the Hogar de Ancianos and that story connected me to Encuentro Medico Alausí, a medical mission group, which every year, sponsors Ecuadorian health care providers to go to the indigenous communities surrounding Alausí and provide meaningful health care. Because it is done with the ministry of health, there is little duplication of services, and follow up is easily obtained. I truly enjoy that fact that I am the only “extranjero” (foreigner) of the group. I have been working with this group now for over 6 years.
This year, however, I did not bring any learners (medical students, residents, etc.) Daniel is interested in going to medical school to become a neurosurgeon. He agreed to come with me and for two days he and I worked together helping the patients that came to see us.
Daniel is fluent in Spanish, as am I, and for most of the patients, that was enough. The native language of the indigenous people of Chimborazo province is Kichwa—so we began learning some words to help build trust with the patients. We taught Daniel how to take blood pressure readings, how to document what we did on the foundation record, and how to find medications in the large section of each room dedicated to medication disbursement. Our team became efficient, and even through a language barrier, we were able to see many patients in a short period of time. One day our team, which consisted of a cardiologist, 2 family physicians, 2 pediatricians, a psychiatrist, and a foot care specialist, had over 200 encounters in an 8-hour period. I was amazed at how easily my son adapted to the new environment, and how helpful he was. I hope to bring him every year now!
After we finished the clinical days, Encuentro Medico Alausi sponsored a dinner, where the volunteers were recognized. The “adults” congratulated and encouraged the teenagers in our group to return often. I left that dinner very inspired and anxious to return. The two medical service days were exhausting, but we still had more work to do. Daniel had also come to Ecuador to complete his eagle scout project at Hogar para sus niños, located in Quito, Ecuador. Before we left Utah, Daniel gained approval from the local Boy Scout Council to work with the orphanage to make tables for the children. These tables were to be used to allow the children to do their crafts outside, as well as participate in yard sales. The orphanage already had the table tops; Daniel’s project consisted of providing 2 tents and legs for 10 tables. With the help of his uncle and parents, Daniel purchased the wood, had it cut, and then directed the team on how to make these legs. The orphanage provided some screws and drills. Donations provided the wood, the chains, the tents, the hinges, and the other parts. Daniel had committed to make 20 sets of legs, but he ended up making 22. For the last few, we ran out of donated wood, but Daniel was able to locate some scrap wood on the property to complete the project. He was all smiles when we finished. His father, however, was in pain everywhere.
So why do I share this story? I am not the first person to go on vacation, nor am I the first
person to volunteer while on vacation. I think, however, I share it because it was the right mix of fun, family, and service. I was exhausted after the medical service and the orphanage service, but I was happy. The service felt meaningful—for the patients, the children served by the orphanage, and for us. Even though it was hard work, it actually enhanced our experience. We will try to include service days in all of our future vacations. The satisfaction we got from finding a meaningful way to help was priceless. Someone once told me that service heals the soul, and this trip taught me that by giving leisure time to serve, we can make our vacations more meaningful, more enjoyable, and more memorable.
Jose Rodriguez, MD, is currently serving as Interim Associate Vice President for the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion and is a Professor (clinical) in the Division of Family Medicine within the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.