STEP Reflection

Megan Fehrenbach

 

Service-Learning and Community Service

1. For my STEP project I traveled to Nicaragua for 9 days with Global Brigades. We provided basic medical attention to people in the village of El Naranjo, and built sanitary stations for their homes.

2. After completing this experience I have a new view on how privileged we are to have what we do in America. I expected to go into a place of poverty, and also expected to be exposed to a culture I was not used to. I did not realize just how drastic that difference would be. This trip opened my eyes to how lives in third world countries can be so basic. I realized how trivial some of the things that are central to our lives are when people with so little could be so happy.

I also realized how much medical attention we receive in America and what we take for granted. These people live without access to things like cough medicine, allergy medicine, and ibuprofen for headaches. Those are just the basic things that everyone needs, but also there are a lot of people that had an intense need for medical care that we could not provide and they could not afford or have access to.

3. The people I met and situations they were in were astounding. I had never put much thought into how people live that have much less than me. When we arrived on site for the first day of the clinic, I saw houses made of sticks, rocks, and mud with no floors, showers, toilets, or sinks. When we spent three days building a sanitary station with a shower, sink, and toilet for a family I even struggled with where I was supposed to use the bathroom without having any toilets or woods around.

I saw wild dogs and horses everywhere that were starving and dying. One of the days on the site we saw a mother dog with her 6 puppies. The mother was too skinny to nurse and looked like it could die at any minute. The newborn puppies were starving, and the people in the area could not feed them because they had to feed themselves first. It is a big problem in this area because they do not spay or neuter their pets—they have no means to do so—, which lead to a huge overpopulation of animals that cannot survive. By the end of our trip only two puppies were still alive and as much as it broke my heart and I wanted to take one home, I realized that this problems was not just isolated to the animals. Actual humans were starving just like those puppies and dying just like them.

When I was shadowing one of our doctors of the United States during this trip, we did a lot of examinations that were not standard in the US. For example, we had to check that babies were crying tears to make sure they were not dehydrated. We were looking at people’s stomachs and eyes to see if they had a parasite (and almost 80% of them did). The parasite problem had a huge prevalence in this area because it could not be stopped with dirt floors, kids playing around in the dirt, a lack of hygiene, and animals running everywhere.

4. This experience opened my eyes to the world by exposing me to things I was not used to. I realized how fortunate I am to have what I do. I learned a lot by shadowing doctors, which gives me a great leg up in my pursuit of a medical career. I also made connections with some doctors in the US that I am on close terms with. Overall, I became more well-rounded through my experiences medically and working across cultural and language barriers.

Observing and Learning in Guatemala

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This past summer I traveled to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala with eight other members of the Ohio State chapter of Global Health Initiative. Surrounded by gorgeous landscape, I spent two weeks in various communities around Lake Atitlan donating my time to several different projects including building beehives, installing ONIL stoves, working with kids at a local school for children with disabilities, and working in school gardens. These projects gave me a chance to learn not only about the communities I worked with but also about myself, and what I can do to improve as a person.

For two weeks I felt continually surprised. Sometimes I surprised myself, sometimes Guatemala surprised me. Constantly learning new things can sometimes feel overwhelming, but it is also exciting to feel yourself change and grow in a positive way. The first things I noticed in Guatemala were all the “differences”. A different landscape, a different language, and different people with different values. Taking all of this in, I quickly began to see that “different” was by no means bad or wrong, it was just “different”. I felt myself beginning to feel more mentally flexible, learning not only to accept my surroundings but also make an effort to understand them. It would take much longer than two weeks to fully understand Guatemalan culture, but I did my best to absorb my surroundings and gain a new perspective while doing so.

Before leaving for my trip, I was intimidated by a number of different things. One of the most important things I worried about was the food I would encounter while abroad. While I don’t really consider myself a particularly picky eater, I was worried I wouldn’t like anything that was too different from my normal diet. Within the first few days of arriving, however, I realized just how unfounded my fears were. First of all, many of my meals contained guacamole, one of my favorite foods. Additionally, there were other familiar foods like beans and cheese that looked very different from the way they do at home, but tasted just as good. Fresh fruit for breakfast was another favorite of mine and after two weeks I could not believe I was ever worried about my meal plan. This was the first part of my trip that taught me to be more open to things that are “different”. Sometimes trying something new can have very delicious results.

I also met a number of new people while on my trip and thoroughly appreciated getting to know all of them. Some of the most influential people I encountered were those that had given up a life in the United States for work in Guatemala. My group leader, as well as employees from some of the other organizations we worked with, like Pueblo a Pueblo, had all left home to pursue a career in somewhere so unfamiliar. Their stories struck me immediately, especially because despite the huge amount of thought I have dedicated to my future career, not once have I ever considered working outside the United States. To live in another country seems so intimidating. But listening to my new acquaintances and hearing how satisfied they were with their lives really demonstrated how much I really need to open my mind. Even if I do not end up moving to another country, I should at least be open to things that sound intimidating or unfamiliar, I might end up pursuing my passion for Public Health in a way that I never thought possible.

The last part of my transformation occurred while doing community projects. This was because many times our group would work in or around peoples homes. I saw many families living in concrete houses with dirt floors, no plumbing, and conditions that most Americans would consider to be truly awful. Looking at these houses, my immediate reaction was to think of how miserable it would be to live there. My most important observation, however, was that the people who did live there were usually not miserable at all. They were often smiling, proud of the the things they have accomplished and they never complained about their situations. Certainly these peoples’ lives looked much more difficult than mine, but that did not necessarily mean they were worse. They appreciated everything that they had and I can only hope that I will learn to follow their example. This also taught me not to accept things I see at face value, and that to truly understand a situation, I would have to live in it.

I knew my trip to Guatemala would transform me, I just did not know in what way it would happen or what changes would take place. I did not expect how much experiencing new things would change my mindset, that going outside the United States would open my perspective in so many ways. This outlook will be very important for me in the future as I start a career in Public Health. I need to be able to adapt to new experiences and new people, and now I feel much better prepared for those types of situations. I am so thankful that STEP gave me the opportunity to practice experiencing things things outside my comfort zone so that I can continue to try to understand, rather than just observe my environment.

Vida Volunteer Trip- Dental/Medical- Costa Rica/Nicaragua

Gaining perspective on the hardships in the current day throughout the world is one that few are able experience in their lives. The daily struggles faced by people throughout the world are only as difficult as the experiences that they have to compare them too. By partaking in a life-changing trip such as VIDA, I was able to readjust my idea of hardships in life and truly gain a respect for peoples ability to deal with life threatening issues on a daily basis. I was able to improve the quality of health care for nearly 1,000 inhabitants throughout the duration of my trip while experiencing culture, gaining social skills, and making life long friendships among fellow volunteers.

The transformation that I undertook throughout the duration of this trip is one that I doubt I would ever be able to experience in such a short time frame if it wasn’t for this opportunity graciously presented to me. I have always approached life in such a way that I have never taken the luxuries I enjoy for granted. However, this trip was one that made me truly realize just how thankful and humble I should be going forward as I attack whatever life throws at me. Before partaking in this trip, I treated materialistic items as a privilege in life. Since then, this trip made me realize that I should be thankful for the little things in life that often go overlooked such as water, food, shelter, and language. The sites I observed and lived in during the duration of this trip included people that were in dire need of food, shelter, and even the knowledge of how to read and write. All in all, my view of the world has changed significantly from previous years. Where there are privileged areas across many countries throughout the world, there are just as many, if not more, areas of poverty and underprivileged people.

A specific moment during the trip that truly began the inception of my transformation is one that I will never forget as long as I live. The VIDA team leader gave a speech to our group that encompassed two key points. The first being that we were told, “This trip is one that will drive you out of your comfort zone further than you could have ever imagined. Instead of shying away from this, embrace it and truly take full advantage of the opportunity being presented to you”. Before this trip, I was a person who rarely entertained the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone. I was satisfied with my position in life and felt no need to stray any further than what I was comfortable with. However, I took the advice of the team leader and I gained more perspective on life in two weeks than I had in over 2 years. It is truly amazing how much someone can grow as a person in life if they step out of their comfort zone.

The second of the two key points further emphasized the idea of perspective. Our team leader told us to make a clockwise circle with our finger near our waist level and asked us which direction our finger was going. Not surprisingly, we all said clockwise. After that, he asked us to continue moving our finger in the same direction and slowly raise it until it was above our head. He once again asked which way our finger was moving. A few began to say that it was indeed still rotating clockwise, but then we all stopped and looked up in silence. Puzzled, we all gained a notion in our head that our finger was now rotating counter-clockwise. Without further discussion the team leader said, “ That small example I have just presented you with is a small metaphor for what you will experience throughout this trip and what I hope you begin to use in your daily lives. No matter what situations we are presented with in life, it is always important to realize and understand the perspective that others may have on the situation”. With such a simple example, our team leader was able to make me realize the respect I should have for others opinions and situations they may be dealing with in life, regardless of whom they may be.

Another specific moment that I found very important in my transformation as a person was the initial experience I had with my first patient in the comfort of their own home. The conditions they were living in certainly shocked me in a way that I had never felt before. The floors were non-existent, the walls made of tin and cardboard, and the possibility of air conditioning in a scorching hot area nearly a dream.IMG_2070

Despite all of these dreadful and unimaginable conditions, the citizens of this property and the entire community were some of the most joyful and care free people that I have ever had the privilege to meet. It was truly inspiring to me to see such positive attitudes where the conditions deemed nearly impossible.

As my journey through the breathtaking countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua progressed, there was a constant progression in my transition as a person. At night, once everyone had fallen asleep, I would lay and think about what all had happened during the trip to that point. I felt sorrow for the people I had worked with, but I also felt a sense of joy thinking about how much I had done to help the communities. In addition, I was surprised to realize how much the communities had taught me. I went into the trip assuming that I would make a huge difference in these peoples lives. While this was true, the people of the communities had taught me life lessons that were not presented by mouth, but by actions.

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I have a strong belief that the transformation and personal development provided by this trip is one that will strongly impact my success in the future. On an academic level, I feel that this trip has immensely expanded my knowledge throughout the field of dentistry. This will allow me to have an edge when I begin my journey through dental school in the future. On a personal and professional level, this trip has provided me with the skill of relating to people and going into a situation with an open mind. In a profession such as the field of dentistry, it is vital that you are able to build strong relationships with the patients you treat and use that to provide them with a proper treatment plan. If a patient is unable to afford the treatment you plan you have made for them that is something that you certainly need to take into consideration. All in all, I am extremely grateful that I was able to partake in this wonderful life changing experience and I want to personally thank STEP for allowing me to take one step closer towards fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a dentist.

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Volunteering in Ghana with Solutions for Life Initiative-Ghana

In the summer of 2015, I spent a month volunteering in Kumasi, Ghana through Solutions for Life Initiative-Ghana. My primary volunteer placement was at Asokwa Children’s Hospital, however I also volunteered at Cherubs Orphanage with the other volunteers I was living with. In my free time I had several opportunities to travel around Ghana, where I saw what beautiful attractions the country had to offer and learn about the country’s history and culture.

Before going to Ghana, I had certain expectations of what I thought it would be like. In America, ever since we are little we learn about Africa in school, and people talk about all the “help” that Africa needs and the relief efforts that are currently being done. We grow up with this view that Africa is an underdeveloped, poor continent riddled with disease and political instability. On the other hand, I also had the opportunity to grow up with several friends who moved from Africa when they were young, and heard from different people about how Africa is not this primitive stereotype that many Americans believe. But I learned that Ghana was unlike anything I could have imagined. It’s not that it is a negative or even positive difference from my expectations, just that I could not have understood what it was like until I went there and experienced it for myself. My view of Africa is now completely different. Because I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the culture and learn so much about the country’s history, as well as health issues that affect it’s citizens, I feel as though I left with a much more accurate view of what Africa is truly like.

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Much of what I learned about Ghana came from simply living there and experiencing the culture for a month. I, along with two other volunteers at the time, stayed with a family (Sally, her husband Nana, and they’re 11-month old son Kwesi), so it got about as close to “real life” as it could get. Sally, who was the founder and director of the organization I volunteered through, also housed us and cooked for us, so I became very familiar with Ghanaian food. We had to get around ourselves, so we learned how to navigate the public transportation system there. I had to get used to the idea of buying most of the things I needed from shops on the side of the road, rather than supermarkets and convenience stores. There was also the fact that I stuck out like a sore thumb, and Ghanaians are very vocal about that sort of thing. But I was welcomed very warmly by the immense amount of hospitality each Ghanaian displayed. Wherever I was, somebody was always willing to lend a helping hand, or just start a conversation with me. I never felt in danger, in fact, I felt even safer in Ghana than I do at home. There were a few luxuries that I enjoy at home that were not in Ghana, such as always having electricity and flowing water, but Ghana is much more developed than many Americans perceive it to be.

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I learned a lot about Ghanaian history when I visited the cultural center in Kumasi, as well as my trip to Cape Coast where I took tours of the Cape Coast and Elmina castles, which doubled as slave dungeons during the time of the Middle Passage. At the cultural center, we took a guided tour of the museum. Our tour guide taught us about the kings of Ghana, the role of colonization, and other interesting cultural facts. At Cape Coast and Elmina castles, we learned about the history of their construction, which European countries had possession at which time, and what all the rooms in the castle were used for. This was extremely interesting for me because the slave trade is something you learn so much about in school, but to actually be there and see where the middle passage was propagated, it really helped me visualize what the history books were trying to say. Both of the castles were very sobering because it reflects on a horrible injustice that humanity inflicted upon itself, but it also serves as a reminder to never allow anything like that to ever happen again.

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I learned a lot about the Ghanaian health system, and the diseases and health issues which are most prevalent. Because I worked in a hospital, I got a lot of hands-on experience and spent a lot of time observing what the health infrastructure looked like in the community. Everyone in Ghana has health insurance, either through the National Health Insurance Scheme, or private insurance. A remarkably high percentage of people contract malaria at some point in their lifetime. So much so, that the lab supervisor joked around that they didn’t even test for malaria in blood donors, because whomever they were donating it to probably already has it anyway. Other diseases and disorders such as Typhoid, Sickle-Cell Anemia, and Meningitis are also common. I had the opportunity to give an injection, assist in the emergency ward, take vitals, prepare prescriptions, perform lab testing on blood samples, and observe malaria parasites and sickle cells under a microscope. All of these experiences taught me so much about healthcare in Ghana, as well as preventive measures that are being taken and methods of treatment.

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My change in the way I think about Africa will affect various areas of my life. From the academic standpoint, I will have much more perspective whenever Africa is brought up in the classroom. Many people have twisted views of what Africa is like by no fault of their own, simply because they can only go by what they hear. But, I had the incredible opportunity to live there and experience the culture for myself, and learn about Ghana’s history from their perspective. I am currently studying public health, and I plan to go to dental school and eventually become an oral surgeon who works in third-world countries. This trip gave me an opportunity to observe the health disparities that cripple places like Ghana, and confirmed for me that this is something I definitely still want to do with my life. Because I worked in the hospital and now have many contacts, I feel as though maybe Kumasi is a place I would one day want to help establish a dental clinic. I truly loved my time there, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back. Kumasi was gracious enough to welcome me with open arms and kind hearts, and I want to do what I can to return the favor.