This post is going to be a graphic. Reader discretion is advised...
So before I started this blog and began traveling in the summer of 2012, I was a good 19-year old Biology major, studying to someday get a career in medicine. Obviously my medical ambitions have been placed on hold as life took me through Europe, Asia, and South America during the last year and a half.
Being here in Bolivia for 2 months, I have ample amounts of free time that I intend to put to good use. After searching out volunteer opportunities, I came across one that included volunteering at a Bolivian hospital for burned victims. I have never had clinical experience in my one-year-old medical career, so I assumed that volunteering in a hospital of a 3rd World Country would be a good hands-on experience for me to decide whether or not medicine was my thing.
I arrived at the hospital, and after a quick interview over tea, I was sent to change into scrubs and called into the observation room to watch the doctor and nurses observe patients.
The first patient in the observation room was a little boy, laying facedown on the observation bed, with burns on both of his legs. Beside the single observation bed, the scarcely filled observation room also had a desk at one corner, and a white cabinet containing a few cheap medical supplies at the other corner. Two nurses changed the bandages on the boy's legs as the boy's father watched. While his bandages were off, the burns on his legs reminded me of the design on top of marble countertops.
I couldn't believe they were letting me watch this. I was just some random dude who had walked into the hospital 30 minutes earlier, and was now wearing scrubs and observing patients with doctors and nurses. I also couldn't believe how bad the conditions were in that hospital. The doctor wasn't using gloves and the equipment they had was stuff you could probably find in any American high-school science class.
After the boy, the next patient was heavy-set woman wearing gloves, a hat, and a surgical mask covering her face. Once inside, she removed the mask to expose a completely burned face and neck. When she laid down on the bed, I noticed that half of her nose was gone, and in its place was a black hole. At a closer look, however, I noticed a thin piece of cartilage running down the middle, just barely qualifying the hole as two huge nostrils. On the ridges of her nose and on her forehead she had stitches, which the doctor began removing with a pair of tweezers and scissors. Again, the doctor wore no gloves as he proceeded to work on her face.
Every time the doctor tugged at her stitches, it felt like he was tugging at my heart. At times, the woman would flinch, causing me to flinch as well. The doctor found a napkin and placed it on the patient's forehead, on top of which he would put the stitches that he had just removed from her face. Once the doctor had finished, he threw the napkin away into a wastebasket and the patient got up and left; after putting on her hat, gloves, and surgical mask.
The next patient was a young man whose one eyelid couldn't reach the bottom of his eye, and after him was a few month-old baby girl who already had reconstructive surgery done on her cleft lip and plans were made to fix her remaining cleft palate.
The next, most memorable, patient was another woman with a burned face. She had stitches as well, starting from both ends of her mouth and continuing until halfway up her cheeks — kind of like Joker from Batman. I watched the doctor pick up the scissors and tweezers, again with no gloves, and begin to take out her stitches. And again, as he pulled on the stitches, it felt like he was pulling at my heart.
After all the stitches were removed, the doctor took out some cream and began smearing it with a Q-tip on the patient's burn scars. He put dabs of the cream along her face, where the stitches were, and then began smearing the cream on the flesh wound below her mouth. Suddenly, while the doctor was still smearing, the flesh wound gave way and the Q-tip went straight through her skin, into her mouth.
Watching the doctor take the Q-tip out, covered in blood and cream, lead me to think that perhaps medicine was NOT my thing after all. Just looking at these poor, burnt people, with Q-tips inside their mouths, and the unsanitary medical conditions they were being treated in made me very uncomfortable.
I walked outside, into the waiting room full of people waiting to be seen inside the one observation room. There, I met another doctor, who began asking me questions as to who I was and where I was from. Because my Spanish sucks, our conversation was full of long and awkward pauses, during which the doctor would just wait, not making any initiative to begin work and help all those in the waiting room. This really annoyed me. I saw how these people had a completely different attitude concerning work, this "I'll get to it later" mentality that was very bothersome. The poor and unsanitary conditions of the hospital also continued to bother me.
Although it was annoying, it was precisely because of this attitude and these conditions that I was allowed inside the observation room to watch the patients be observed. I still continue to think back onto this experience - my first experience ever in an observation room. I still remember the poor and hopeless victims and think about how many of them there must be in our world. And although part of me has decided that medicine is not my thing, another part of me wonders if this is my calling; the tip of the iceberg of my future...
I didn't take any photos, out of courtesy to the hospital and the patients. But here's one of me in scrubs.
Say hello to Dr. Dan!