by Homero Brum, MBBS student, Class of 2018

I am currently placed at Ponce Health Science University in Puerto Rico for my clinical years.  I was given the opportunity to take part in a humanitarian mission organised by a Puerto Rican non-profit organisation called Mision Indígena Latinoamérica. They organise medical missions focused Surgery twice a year. Missions include countries like Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. The missionaries bring specialty surgery care to remote areas of indigenous communities of Latin America, where there is a lack of specialty services provided by local health agencies.

I was invited to be part of the team by one of the Anaesthesiologists I worked with at San Lucas Hospital in Ponce. The mission was a week long. We were allocated to the north of Colombia, near the border with Venezuela, in the state of La Guajira. The village is called Nazare, a remote community located nine hours north of the closest airport. We arrived there by Jeep, an extremely uncomfortable but worth-every-minute ride, crossing the heart of Colombia’s desert where paved roads are non-existent. The indigenous community we worked with is called Wayu. The Wayu have been a huge cause of concern in the last year. News in Colombia has been reporting an increasing number of health-related deaths among children. Causes of death are mainly related to malnutrition and deficient healthcare.

All medical equipment and consumables were brought in our luggage. We set up a small, three-theatre surgery area, where we would perform General Surgery, Anaesthesia, Obstetrics-Gynaecology, and Urology.

In the cabanas we slept in hammocks in the open air. Our day started at 7:00am, and once we got to the hospital, the team would work hard until about 1:30am. We would then go back to our cabanas where we would sleep and start the same routine next day.  It was very hard work and most days we would go back to our lodging with back pain, tired and hungry.  There was no electricity or water to take a shower at night.  We would wake up early next day, shower before getting to the surgery area again. I was one of three medical students there. I was given a few very important responsibilities. I assisted doctors in performing epidural anaesthesia and other small procedures, such as Ganglion cysts and Lipomas.

Although this mission was very hard and intense, I am very thankful and grateful for this life-changing opportunity. We helped hundreds of people who would have never had access to surgical services. I will never forget the look in the eyes of the children we helped, or the hugs and tears coming from mothers as a way of thank-you. And I will never forget how strong the Wayu people are, despite the harsh conditions they live in.

This humanitarian effort was worth every single minute.  I learned a lot about medicine, and I had the chance to reflect about life and about myself. It made me realise that I made the right decision when I decided to become a doctor, and that I will always want to be involved in medical missions.

In conclusion, this was the highlight of my medical school experience.