A Travellerspoint blog

In A Bolivian Hospital

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!

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Posted by DanPan 16:49 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz

Now that I've acclimatized to La Paz's 3,640 m (11,942 ft) altitude, I had the chance to go out and explore the city in which I'll be spending the next few months.

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THE PLACE

First of all, Bolivia (of which the administrative capital is La Paz and legal capital is Sucre) is a land-locked country in the center on South America. Not many people know that. Not many people have even heard of Bolivia before, much less know where it's located. When I told people that I was going to Bolivia, the most common reaction was, "WHY?! There's a war there!", thinking that I had said Libya instead of Bolivia. I've also had people think I said that I was going to Bulgaria or Serbia, and I've once even Guatemala, because they've never heard of Bolivia and it doesn't register as a name of a country.

BUT. There are definitely a few perks associated with being in a country that is unknown by most of the world; such as the fact that there is no tourist-overload like in the famous countries in Europe and Asia. Without the tourist hype, Bolivia's rich ecosystems and ancient ruins are well preserved. Also, without tourists, you can really get the good feel of the country in its true colors. It is what it is. All the potholes and graffiti and missing pieces of pavement are left in all their glory for everyone to see.

THE LIFESTYLE

The reason Bolivia remains virtually unknown by the outside world is because it is still a developing country. But even though it's developing, it is the least developed country in South America. However, this also comes with perks (at least for Americans, like myself) -- it is very cheap! I enjoy the full course lunches for $1.50 and the 0.25¢ bus rides across town. Anyone on a fixed income from any developed country can live here in riches.
(Unless, of course, you buy American products in Bolivia. Because they're high quality and because of an included import tax, American products are more expensive here than in the United States. $10 cereal? WHAT?!)

Just make sure to buy "Hecho en Bolivia" (made in Bolivia) products and you'll be fine!

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THE PEOPLE

Like many countries of Latin America, there is a big mix of people of indigenous and European decent living in Bolivia. But, in Bolivia especially, the indigenous factors have a significant influence on the culture, especially on music, food, and art.
Although I had mentioned before that Bolivia is a developing country, the lifestyle is pretty westernized. Almost everyone has cell-phones and wears blue jeans. But even still, there are some indigenous people who prefer walking around town in cultural dress rather than western. These people are called Cholitos (male) and Cholitas (female). Although Cholito dress is less distinguishable, Cholita attire is very outstanding. Cholitas are known for their poofy dresses, colorful shawls, and bowler hats (kinda like Abraham Lincoln's). It's a strange fashion choice in my personal opinion, but it's considered indigenous cultural attire, and you will find many women dressed as so.

My attempt to photograph a Cholita, being as discreet as possible:

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Wow. I feel like a stalker...

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THE LOCATION

The final, and most unique aspect of Bolivia's administrative capital, La Paz, is its extraordinary geography. Being the world's highest capital that so kindly gives altitude sickness to it's first-time visitors, La Paz is situated in the Andes. Originally constructed in a bowl-like crest completely surrounded by mountains, the city began climbing the surrounding hills, resulting in a city with various elevations and awesome views from anywhere you look!

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Posted by DanPan 18:35 Archived in Bolivia Comments (3)

Bolivia

La Paz

I am in Bolivia now!

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Why am I here? Well, I had a bunch of free time back home. I was still in Japan when the school semester started, and so I thought to make use of that time by visiting relatives in Bolivia and working on my Spanish.

I'm in Bolivia's administrative capital, La Paz, which is built entirely on mountains. La Paz is 3,640 meters (11,942 ft) above sea level, making it the tallest capital city in the world. And, at the time of this writing, I am experiencing quite an intense case of altitude sickness. When I climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan, where the summit is a bit taller than La Paz, I didn't really feel any altitude sickness. I credited this to superior genetics. Then again, I was only on the summit of Fuji for a couple of hours.

When I first arrived in La Paz, I felt fine. At times, I would be out of breath when I climbed stairs, but that was it. A few days later, I got food poisoning (food poisoning case #4! Twice in Japan and once in Mongolia). With the food poisoning, I began to experience full-fledged altitude sickness. My head hurts, I'm tired, I have no appetite, I stay in bed all day, and I go to the bathroom every 10 minutes. Whenever I stand, or even look upward, I begin to feel dizzy. I wonder how travelers come to South America, to Bolivia and Peru especially, if they'll just get altitude sickness and have to lay in bed for the first couple of days?

Anyway, I'm a strong boy! I will get acclimatized, my altitude sickness will pass, and I will explore Bolivia to my heart's content!

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Posted by DanPan 22:08 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Bye-Bye Japan

Unfortunately, time passes by and my year in Japan has come to an end.

I had a great time working as an intern at LEX/Hippo Family Club in Tokyo. The experience taught me a lot, widened my world view, and introduced me to an amazing culture and people.

After returning to Japan from China, the last 21 days in Japan were spent participating in good-bye parties all over Tokyo.

Goodbye Party at Work
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Goodbye Party at Church
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Goodbye Party in Ota-ku (first host family)
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Goodbye Party in Saitama (second host family)
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Goodbye Party at the Airport
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Wow, I had a lot of goodbye parties. And no, it's not because I'm super-duperly popular and I have a lot of Japanese friends who like to throw me good-bye parties. It's because the Japanese people I met are incredibly kind and thoughtful. They definitely set a wonderful example of how to make someone feel welcomed.

How often do people come to visit us for a time in our circles, our churches, or our groups? We get close to them, and when they leave, we're just like, "kthnxbye." I think we should put in more time and effort in our temporary relationships, so that when the visitors leave, they would feel welcomed and would want to come back again. That's exactly how I feel about Japan now. Thank you, Japan. And thank you, LEX/Hippo Family Club, for allowing me to spend such an awesome year in Japan.

---- ALSO ----

While in Japan, I had the chance to climb Mount Fuji!

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Mount Fuji is Japan's tallest mountain, at 3,776 meters (12,388 ft). It's Japan's trademark, found on virtually all postcards and Japanese paraphernalia.

When I first came to Japan, I spoke no Japanese and thought at times that I would never learn it. So, I think it would be cool to draw a parallel here, and say that Mount Fuji is a symbol of my presence in Japan. Just as I conquered the climb up Fuji, I conquered the Japanese language in the same manner. But, in reality, there is so much of the Japanese language left to conquer that I am not quite at the top yet.

Instead, I can parallel Mount Fuji to myself. Just as I conquered Mt. Fuji, I conquered all of my initial doubts about ever learning Japanese and being part of the Japanese culture. Just like with Fuji, I am higher than I ever thought possible!

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Posted by DanPan 20:26 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

China, Final

Back to Shanghai

Our last day in Beijing was spent visiting the numerous attractions of China's capital city.

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That night, we planned to ride the train back to Shanghai, from where we would fly back to Tokyo. My host sister decided to stay an extra day in Beijing, so only my friend and I took the train to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, when it came time to buy the Beijing --> Shanghai train tickets, all of the sleepers were sold out. We had no choice but to buy seats. A 13-hour overnight train ride in a seated position was definitely gonna suck, so neither of us was looking forward to it.

When it came time to board, my friend and I took our seats across from an old man and a teenager, both Chinese. The old man talked to the teenager the entire trip, and the teenager made it seem like he was kindly listening, even though we was bored out of his mind.

The train was packed. Not only were all the seats occupied, but people would still enter the train at every stop and join those standing in the aisles. I realized that even though I was unhappy with having to sit overnight for 13 hours, it was much better than having to stand. Most of these people didn't seem like they could afford seats anyway.

My friend and I were both foreigners, but my friend was Japanese, so he could blend in well with the Chinese community. I, however, a blonde and blue-eyed American, was very noticeable. Everyone stared at me whenever I would get up to go to the bathroom. They looked at me like, "What are you doing here, white man?" Foreign tourists usually buy tickets for the much more expensive high speed train, or at least get a sleeper car. But due to unforeseen circumstances, the two of us were stuck in this train car with, who appeared to be, mostly lower-class Chinese laborers.

Being there, amongst the poorer Chinese, really opened my eyes. Although sleeping in a seated position for 13 hours is very uncomfortable, it's much better than having to stand for 13 hours. One old woman, standing in the aisle, decided to lay down and sleep on the floor. Many people who didn't have seats but didn't have room to stand in the aisles were squatting in the compartment between train cars, where the bathrooms are. Of the two bathrooms, one was occupied by someones luggage, so only one bathroom was available for use. Another person, with their luggage, sat on top of the sink, so you couldn't wash your hands after doing your business.

What touched me most was when the 13 hours were over and we finally arrived in Shanghai. One older woman took her stuff, wrapped it in a blanket, and then tied it to her body with a rope. This woman couldn't even afford a backpack, much less a seat. This entire experience made me realize how blessed and fortunate I am. We don't usually see such cases of extreme poverty - we tend to do things that offer the most comfort and convenience, keeping ourselves at a distance from those less fortunate.

I'm glad I spent 13 hours in one of China's poorer train cars. It made me realized how much I have and how much more I need to appreciate it.

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Posted by DanPan 13:39 Archived in China Comments (0)

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