Name: Melissa Harris
Hometown: Northwest Arkansas
Nationality: United States
University: University of Arkansas
Degree: Pre-med School
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (advanced)
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Medical Assistance in Merida, Mexico
Duration: 3 weeks
Start month: June 2016
Claim to fame: Melissa has served communities outdoors in 100+ degree summer heat in Mexico, interacted with Islamic men and women in the Middle East, worked with church groups in Ireland in England, and can execute her duties as a paramedic among the busy high-rises of California. In her duties as an Outreach Director, Melissa sat with homeless people on street corners and talked with them in dirty trailer homes without electricity. It truly makes no difference to her where she is, as long as she can help others.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to become a UBELONG volunteer after reading a multitude of websites for different Volunteer Organizations/Non-profits. I had a strong desire to do charitable work in the medical field in order to prepare for medical school, and I have known since I was a child that I wanted to serve the people of Mexico. With those two goals in mind, I began the search-which led me to UBELONG. There was a medical assistance project available in Merida, and so it was a perfect fit. In addition, UBELONG advocated community and cultural involvement, which was a huge plus. The program costs were reasonable, and I felt that I could make a huge impact in the lives of the Mexican people through the work UBELONG has established there.
What did you find most rewarding from you volunteer experience?
There were so many facets to my UBELONG experience that were rewarding, that it’s hard to narrow them down! I worked at a local hospital, a local children’s hospital in the south of the city. Overall, it was so inspiring to see the medical providers do so much for the kids…with very few resources. Everyone welcomed me- from the Director General of the hospital, Dr. Ake Sosa, the social workers, down to the Psychiatry team and O.R. Nurses and surgeons. They allowed me access into the patients lives and healthcare. Parents opened their hearts to me and permitted me to hear their stories. Many of them were painfully poor, and this hospital was the only hope they had for improved outcomes. One little toddler named Marcela had a colostomy, and had been hospitalized on and off every day since she was born. Despite the adversity she faced, she always had a wonderful smile on her face. I was able to talk and play with her in the days prior to surgery, and ultimately take her into the hospital’s only (very-basic) operating suite, insert IV’s to help the team, and see the colostomy removed. Marcela recovered well, and over the next week her mom revealed that she was so very grateful. She kept saying “Gracias a Dios por la vida de mi hija!” The mom was single and raising two kids alone in a home with no air conditioning, limited running water, and also trying to hold down a job. I was able to follow Marcela’s case through until discharge, and it was so wonderful to be a part of bringing joy and health to that kid!
As I mentioned before, the hospital really is only supplied with the basics, and nothing more. Instead of using tourniquets for IV starts and blood draws- they have to use latex gloves. There are no alcohol prep wipes for cleaning an area prior to sticking a patient, the nurses use cotton balls in a stainless steel container that have been doused in alcohol, but aren’t necessarily sterile after many hands have been introduced. There are NO pillows in the whole hospital, because they can’t afford them. Some of the children have been inpatient’s for months, and they have no toys or indoor playroom. The reason that this facility is so poorly resourced is that patients are largely on the public health insurance, and they are not funded by the private insurance payments like the hospitals in the north.
It pained me to see the adolescents in the Mental Health ward, like Jorge, pace around a small room for weeks and weeks without books, games or a TV. It looked like a prison cell. His team of caregivers, from Karina and Bibiana, the psychologists, to his nurse, Beni- did a wonderful job with his therapy and recovery- but he needed an outlet. The same story could be repeated for the kids (aged 2 months-6 years) in the other units. Whether they were surgical patients, infectious disease, respiratory or general medical cases. These precious kids, some of whom lived in one room houses with their parents and slept on floors or in shared hammocks, would lay in their cribs or beds and stare at the ceiling without anything to play with. We know that emotional health is key to physical recovery, and it was so sad for me to witness this.
I was able to start a GoFundMe account and reach out to my friends and family at home, to ask them to help improve the quality of life in some way for these children! They rose to the occasion, and I was able to purchase clean blankets, board games, reading books, coloring books and sticker albums, lego sets, puzzles, My Little Pony’s and toy trucks, cars and airplanes for all the patients. Their parents were so grateful for this show of care and concern from the United States that many of them were in tears! Seeing the need for distraction in a place that can be so sad, I was also able to purchase flat screen televisions for the hospital for the first time in it’s existence. We installed them on the walls in every room, and because of the generosity of people who heard about the plight of this little hospital, I was able to secure a good-sized DVD library for the kids as well. Before I left Merida, the staff were already using the television’s to provide patient & parent education in an interactive manner! This made my heart sing! Jorge was far less agitated and bored with his puzzles and Lego’s, and I was able to stand by his side for some time each day and construct dragons, vehicles, and play Nerf-volleyball with him, and the other teen patients. To see them get out of bed, take part in activity, and smile was a tremendous blessing.
One surgeon, Dr. Felipe, said one thing that inspired me and challenged me, at the same time. We were doing a procedure on a 4 year old child who had an advanced infected abscess (due to sleeping on the floor at home). The kid, of course, needed peripheral IV access to administer anesthesia and antibiotics to save his life, but because they were so ill, it was hard to find a good vein. The surgeons brought him in and looked for an area to insert a central line. They were a great team of skilled providers, residents, nurses (Marta and Glendi were so helpful to help teach me how to scrub in), and anesthesiologists. But after searching all over this kid’s body for a point of access (typically you look in the neck and groin-areas), they couldn’t find a patent spot. The team must have had to stick this child 12+ times. Once again, I had tears in my eyes! Dr. Felipe looked up at me, over his mask, and said in Spanish “See, Melissa, if we had the equipment like you all have access to in the States. Like a portable ultrasound machine (they allow you to see through the layers of skin and visualize the location of the vessels that you’re aiming for). We could find these tiny veins and arteries on the first try, and we wouldn’t have to go through this. We have to be good at our clinical skills here, because we can’t rely on machines that we don’t have. It just takes so long.”
At once my heart sank, and I knew what I had to do. I may not be able to help everyone in poverty in Mexico, but just like the UBELONG Preparation Booklet says, I could do something, that day, to make a difference. So I made some phone calls to the people at home, and we are currently raising funds to purchase two ultrasound machines for the hospital. It also turned out that we found a hospital in the USA that may be able to donate one to us for free! How happy the clinicians like Dr. Felipe will be…when it’s not so difficult to do their job. Which is to concentrate on the task of saving children’s lives without the worry about having the tools to do so!
Every conversation I had there was precious. The children and parents would even help me with my Spanish grammar when I made a mistake! I was able to leave my high-quality stethoscope there for the nurses to use, since they have been getting along with a more economical version that doesn’t transmit heart and lung sounds, quite as well. And despite what they are lacking, it is obvious that all of the workers there love these kids! They are so gentle and happy in their interactions. It inspires me to try and return to Mexico after medical school and give back to these people who are so joyful, with so very little. Here in America, we have an abundance of resources, and I don’t think we even realize how much we have.
For a few days, I was able to get to know a little boy, Cristian, and his parents. Cristian was born with an intestinal defect. At first, he would cry whenever I approached him, but eventually, he opened up and began to laugh and smile when he saw me. He couldn’t get up and walk around, but I brought some super-hero toys to his bed and I would sit and play with him, while his mom would go home and take a nap or tend to her other children. She had sat with him day and night for such a long time. Just “being there” as a support and encouragement to these weary mom’s and dad’s can go a long way, even if there isn’t much you can do medically to help their child. When Cristian was discharged, he came up to me and kissed my forehead. His mom hugged my neck, even though I didn’t do much for her outside of showing them that they mattered.
I took away so much more than I left in Merida. The faces, and stories, of the Mexican people. The knowledge that we are so blessed in the United States with a plethora of supplies; not to mention reliable electricity, water, and income far above what these people could ever dream of. Some of the workers told me that although they are highly educated and work extremely hard, they would be fortunate to ever make $10,000 pesos/month. That works out to about $520 US dollars. Most subsist on about $73 pesos a day ($3.84 US). Even if I have very little, by American standards, I have more than what we actually need.
The Pool Pool family invited me into their home one evening, and it was an approx. 20’x20′ cinder block structure. The wife begged my pardon because her house was not “clean”, even though it had dirt floors and no windows. Their son and daughter slept on two hammocks suspended above the floor, in the center of the room, and the husband and wife slept on another one near the back. There was no sink, stove, or bathroom in this house. In the little backyard, they had a chicken who sporadically supplied eggs, and a rooster, along with a dog. Yet they opened their life to me and showed me what they did have. They loved each other. Both parents believed that 12-year old Santiago would finish school, and grow up and become a tour guide, or something equally great. I sat with them for a few hours, and taught the family some English phrases, and then they took me swimming! The hospitality of the Yucatecan people is off the charts.
I hope that I was able to make a lasting impact, even if it’s found in the aggregation of a few special moments that I shared with some very outstanding people. More than anything I found my reward in knowing that I came back changed-by their humility and persistent hope. One day, I pray that I can return and help to change the level of medical care given to these beautiful souls!
What three pieces of advice would you give to a future UBELONG Volunteer?
If I were to give three pieces of advice to a future UBelong volunteer, they would be:
- Your experience will be defined by your attitude. Whether or not you have a productive and life-changing time at your project depends on your willingness to pitch in where you are needed, be friendly to people who are different than yourself, and endure hardship and inconvenience with a smile. It’s hot in Merida. Life moves slowly. Flow with the culture and keep a smile on your face! Make a valiant attempt to speak their language, and respect their customs. Don’t forget to make new friends, and have fun along the way!
- Be flexible and pro-active. Find ways to help, and then help. Instead of waiting for someone to ask or hold your hand, humbly submit your ideas to the people on your project. If things don’t go they way you expect them to, take it in stride, and see where you can learn from the experience. Leave the place better, in some way, than you found it.
- You’ll probably never want to leave, so be prepared to carry your experience around within your heart for the rest of your life. Allow your time spent volunteering to shape your worldview, behavior and practices when you return home.