Volunteering just in general is good for your own soul but volunteering abroad … that will be so much more soul bearing than you could ever imagine!
First of all, let me squash a misconception that I had myself and that I heard a few times from others: “I don’t have any special skill that would be useful.” You do not need to have any special skills to volunteer abroad. You just have to be willing to put your own needs aside and help others. There will be many opportunities for you if you open your heart to this.
Volunteering abroad gives you the unique opportunity to immerse yourself into the culture of a community. You will learn how they handle stressful situations, how they learn from others, and how they implement new ideas. You will learn how they are creative with getting a task done without the convenience of specialized equipment like we have at home. You will learn more about yourself and you will grow. You will challenge your ability to adapt to different situations and maybe even languages. You will learn new ways to communicate with others, navigate new places, eat different foods, and more.
Let me share a little about my experience with you …
- My special “skill” (that I thought I had to have before I signed up for this experience): I am a physical therapist.
- Project I signed up to participate in: Medical (obviously, it seemed the most appropriate fit for my “skill” that I thought I had to have).
- Location I chose to do my volunteer project: Cusco, Peru
When I arrived in the volunteer agency office I was given an orientation; it went over basic safety needs and company policies. I was then introduced to my medical project director so I could get the tour of the medical clinic I was assigned to. .The director and I took a bit of a walk to a bus station where we got on a bus that would take us about an hour outside of Cusco, to Chinchero. We walked into the clinic at Chinchero and this is where things started to come together for me.
I was fully expecting to be working in a rehabilitation area, an area where I could provide physical therapy services. Since this was my “skill” then, of course, this is what I expected to do. But this was far from the case…
My project director introduced me to the doctor on staff and then gave me a quick tour of the grounds. I then spent the rest of the day with the doctor helping her with physical medical exams. These are things I’ve gone through basic training for when I was in PT school over 14 years ago but they’re not things I do regularly now. But, there I was, completing cardiopulmonary physical exams along with exams of the eyes, throat, abdomen, and more. I learned very quickly that the people in this area don’t speak English and they rarely speak Spanish; their native tongue is Quechua. And, here I was, barely speaking Spanish. She and I saw over 60 patients that first day, in 5 hours!
(This was our office)
The next day was more of the same physical exams and more general medicine assessments, reviewing lab reports, and discussing treatment options for patients ranging in age from I was reviewing 7 hours to 90 years old. There was a baby born in the clinic just 7 hours before I arrived; I helped to clean up the birthing room where the tiny little baby was born. They didn’t have many of the basic supplies we take for granted – like gloves, disinfectant, heaters, blankets, or a great sanitary way to clean the bodily fluids off the floor. I sprayed that floor with a hose and then used a broom to push everything down a little drain. The language barrier from English to Quechua was beginning to wear on me. I wanted nothing more than to be able to communicate with the patients I was seeing. I used a lot of hand gestures and relied on the doctor and a nurse who spoke broken English to help me translate as much as possible. I saw just as many patients today as we did the day before.
(Labor and Delivery room after I cleaned up)
On my third day of volunteering, I gave eye exams to patients who only spoke Quechua. Since Quechua is not a written language, this made it even more challenging for me. This is me with the eye chart I had to use…
On my fourth day of volunteering, I was giving injections in their topical room and I continued to help with medical and physical exams. My first injection was to a 22-month old little girl screaming at the top of her lungs. The nurses helped me steady my hand to give that injection and from then on for the rest of the day it was easy.
(Topical and Injection room)
On my fifth and final day of volunteering I was giving injections which seemed to just get easier with each one. The baby that was born a few days prior was rushed in by her Mom panicking that she wasn’t breathing. A few of us rushed to offer help and, after what seemed like forever, the tiny little baby started breathing again.
This clinic operated on so little yet so much all at the same time! They had minimal supplies for safety and sanitation. They had minimal in terms of medical supplies and availability to do testing. They had little in terms of available space for privacy. But … they made up for all of that with an atmosphere that you would never get anywhere else. This clinic was full of people who cared about others, they genuinely wanted to help the patients. You could not miss their passion for everyone that stepped foot in that clinic! Doctors and nurses hugged patients, cried with patients, laughed with patients, and, most importantly, loved every single one of them. This is what I realized is missing so much in our own health communities; there is a serious lack of genuine compassion in American healthcare. They have just as much paperwork, if not more than us (the amount of paperwork I watched go through that clinic in just one week was unreal!), yet they can still operate with true caring and compassion. They have a true passion for what they do and this alone was more inspiring than anything I encountered! I wish for more of us Americans to find this passion for doing what we love – no matter what it is!
(Case in point for having less … this was a wheelchair we used for patients)
I had learned a couple of basic phrases in Quechua but I didn’t feel this mattered because I had already learned very quickly that, no matter what language you speak, everyone understands the meaning of a genuine smile and a hug!
My life is forever changed by this experience and for that I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to serve the people of Chinchero through volunteering at this clinic. Chinchero and Cusco, Peru will hold a very special place in my heart for the rest of my existence. This … this right here … is exactly why you should volunteer abroad! Do it to change other people’s lives! Do it to enrich other communities that have less and work with less yet smile and laugh more! Do it for your own growth of character! Do it to make a difference to them … and to yourself!
Did I use any physical therapy skills? Sure, a couple of times, but it certainly wasn’t what I used to help them each day. Did I learn anything during this experience? YES, without a doubt, I learned a TON! So much of what I learned wasn’t just the skills they were teaching me but what I learned about myself during the whole experience. That alone is what is pricelss.
I’ve been home and back at “real” work for a week now and I already want to go back …