Jina Park '13 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Volunteers with Costa Rican Medical Clinic

Jina Park is a biology and English major from Duluth, Ga. She traveled to Costa Rica to volunteer at an underserved medical community in Costa Rica, coordinated by International Service Learning. 

Though I am not a morning person, waking up at 6:30 a.m. every morning was not a problem for me in Costa Rica. Downstairs at Casa Concórdia, our house mom is preparing a hearty breakfast with pinto gallo and guanavana juice. By 7:30 a.m., all of the team leaders, translators, physicians, pharmacists and team members, including myself, get on the bus in scrubs and stethoscopes. Every morning I am excited to visit a rural village near San Jose to see patients and provide them with basic medical care.

We work every day, even on weekends. I cannot complain, however, because the scenery as we meander to the rural villages is a wonderful panorama of marvelous, misty rain forest and Irazú volcano that Costa Rica is famous for. The unpaved road and houses made of metal sheets signal that we are approaching the village. Since medical facilities are rare around these villages, we borrow a place--a church, community center, etc.-- in the community to set up our daily clinics. The free clinic for residents opens at 8 a.m., but the patients are already waiting in front of the closed church to get "billetes" (tickets) for the day.. Seeing them wait, I promptly get ready to set up the clinic. With everyone helping, the place transforms into the clinic, pharmacy, waiting area and consulting rooms in 15 minutes. At this point, the waiting room is filled with patients. ¿Lista? Sí.

I begin my day by greeting the first patient in Spanish. There are four student volunteers, a translator and a physician per group; each of us rotate between recording medical history, conversing with the patient, performing physical examinations and taking vital signs. I meet patients with variety of diseases, from common throat infection and chronic diseases to gastritis, cataracts and scabies. After briefing the medical record to our physician, she makes and explains the diagnosis and treatment to us and the patient.

After an hour of lunch break--rice and beans with plantains or potatoes as a side with tropical fruit juice--at noon, I feel refreshed and continue with the clinical routine for two more hours. The Costa Rican healthcare system grants health insurance for all workers and their families. However, a shortage of physicians and medical facilities have made it an inefficient system, where patients wait up to a year to receive treatment after making an appointment. The free clinic strives to aid the patients by providing primary care, preventive measures and basic medications. The insufficient medical care in the rural villages may be a reason for the patients treating us as professionals, calling us "doctors." This higher expectation gives me a broader opportunity to serve, as well as a greater sense of responsibility. We are expected to receive thorough training and gain hands-on experiences in patient care. The appreciation and acceptance by the patients will be an unforgettable aspect of this trip.

Then, at 3:00 p.m., I visit patients in their homes and encourage them to come to the free clinic. Most of the residents and Nicaraguan immigrants who live in these rural villages suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure but cannot receive medical service due to poverty and lack of health insurance. In more serious cases, the residents suffer from alcoholism, addiction, hernia and AIDS. It is a very humbling experience to sympathize with them and listen to their struggles. We invite them to visit the clinic the next morning for recommendations and advice.

Around 5:30, I walk down the muddy steps along the village trail and make my way back to the clinic, thinking of the people and their stories and wishing I could do more. We wrap up the clinics and head back to la Casa to have dinner and get rest for the next day.