Aug. 16, 2017
Taran Silva is a third-year student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine.
When you hear the word Guatemala, what comes to mind? If you’re like I was, you are probably searching Google maps right now trying to find it. Before I first traveled there, the only thing I knew about Guatemala was that they spoke Spanish.
This year for spring break, I had an opportunity to go to Guatemala with the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine for my second time. Having also gone on the same trip last year, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Many of the patients we would be working with would have uncontrolled chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Only being in the country for a week makes it difficult for us to help patients gain better control of their diseases.
To my surprise, my second Guatemala experience was very different from the first. Many of the patients we worked with presented with problems that were acute in nature – ailments like coughs, diarrhea and parasitic infections. Some also had concurrent chronic conditions that, to my surprise, were well-managed compared to the patients we saw last year. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Working with patients who were managing chronic diseases well was a 180-degree turnaround from one year ago. Naturally, I was curious to know what contributed to the change in the patients’ ability to manage their health, so I asked them.
Many of them told me they were going to the clinic in Tecpán, Guatemala, which is operated by DO Care International and is staffed year-round by osteopathic physicians, residents (recently graduated physicians) and osteopathic medical students. I was thrilled to hear this, as our work there is more sustainable when patients can receive appropriate follow-up care.
The experience of providing health care in Guatemala helped me appreciate the importance of cultural competence. One of the most challenging aspects of health care is the fact that providers treat people from many different backgrounds. It can be challenging to provide care that is appropriate for a specific patient, given that person’s cultural background if one has had no exposure to other cultures.
Guatemala is a very diverse country with influences from the Mayan and Spanish cultures. Guatemalans require different considerations than some of the patients in the U.S. My time in Guatemala has taught me how to better relate to patients who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and I gained a deeper appreciation for diversity.
Much of the care we provided in Guatemala was centered around patient education. For example, if we give a child an anti-parasitic treatment but do not educate the family on the importance of drinking only clean water, that child will likely get another parasitic infection in the future. I found providing patient education to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip because we were not just treating existing problems, but we were also helping to prevent them from recurring. Patient education plays a large role in primary care and my experience in Guatemala has encouraged me to pursue a career in a primary care specialty such as family medicine.
Trips like the one to Guatemala are not just great for the communities we visit, but they are also refreshing for medical students. It is so easy for medical students to get caught up in the classroom grind, studying all day, every day, for the never-ending stream of exams that are coming our way.
It’s easy to forget that we are studying medicine because we care about people and we want to help others. I have gone to Peru, Cuba, Mexico and Guatemala with the College of Osteopathic Medicine because the trips help me refocus on the reasons why I decided to study osteopathic medicine.
Medical school is not just about the next test or standardized patient encounter – it is about learning to be the best physicians that we can be so we can provide patient-centered care to our communities. These trips help keep me grounded and I am grateful to attend a school that has given me so many opportunities to become the best physician possible.