HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (June 12, 2013) - When Mythreyi Mahalingam visited Peru for two weeks this summer, she didn't spend her time touring the ruins of Machu Picchu or catching rays beside Lake Titicaca. She spent it providing basic triage and health education to Peruvians in the rural communities of Primero de Mayo and Iquitos.
Mahalingam, who is currently pursuing her master's degree in biology, was one of three students from The University of Alabama in Huntsville to participate in a medical mission organized by the university's Medical Careers Club in conjunction with International Service Learning.
She and her fellow club members, undergraduate biology majors Mallika Mahalingam and Starr James, were charged with helping to set up temporary clinics in these remote destinations, then going door-to-door to perform a community census and encourage residents to visit the clinics.
At the clinics, which each comprised two triage stations and a pharmacy, Mahalingam says the students provided free medical care and distributed donated medical supplies like antiparasite treatment, antibiotics, painkillers, and vitamins that the three had brought with them from the US.
"We were basically doing everything a doctor would do except for writing final prescriptions," she says. That included interviewing patients, checking patient vitals, and performing physical exams. In one instance, she says, she even gave the chief of a local tribe an injection to treat his chronic back pain.
"It was a little scary to give the injection but they prepared us well," says Mahalingam, adding that she had done several trial runs earlier by injecting oranges. The students were also taught how to suture wounds, practicing first on sponges and then on pigs' ears, which she says was "realistic."
Throughout the trip, the students were accompanied by a Peruvian doctor and nurse. So after the students would make a diagnosis, says Mahalingam, they would then consult the doctor and propose treatment. But they were limited by what they could offer patients on the spot - and oftentimes, it wasn't enough.
It really opens your perspective and your mind to a lot of different things you don't see in Alabama.
UAH graduate student
"A common disease there is tuberculosis, but the treatment takes six months. Our solutions were really short term," she says. "So when we did see one elderly woman who had TB, we had to tell her to go to a hospital because we didn't have the treatment with us."
And even when they could treat patients, she adds, some rejected what they viewed as "Western" medicine. "They perform their own remedies based on legend or something their family taught them," says Mahalingam. "They think 'This is the cure to this,' and they're not going to waiver."
Nevertheless, she continues, "the people who did show up brought their family and their extended family, and we had some people come in just to get a checkup because they'd never had a physical exam. So even if we didn't do anything, we could give them peace of mind."
And there was one group that universally welcomed them - the children, who Mahalingam says were "fascinated" with the group's blond-haired, blue-eyed members. "Even though I don't speak a lot of Spanish," she says, "I was able to communicate with the kids. We grew really close to them."
The students taught the children how to wash their hands and brush their teeth, and they made sure everyone received antiparasite treatment as a preventative measure. And once the clinics were closed, says Mahalingam, "we played soccer with the kids and we had a piñata party."
But although Mahalingam says she "really enjoyed the medical experience" and that the trip "reaffirmed for all three of us that we want to work in health care," it still left her with a bittersweet feeling. "I wish I could have made a bigger impact," she says. "I felt like I could have done more."
After all, she knows how lucky she is to live in a country like America, where access to basic amenities is a given. "Every time I leave the US, I'm thankful I live here," she says. "We take a lot of things for granted that we don't really realize until we leave - simple necessities like power and water."
Compare that to the healthcare that rural Peruvians receive, she continues. "If you don't have Essalud [the country's social health insurance], you really don't receive much of anything," she says. "So if you cut your arm and go to the hospital, doctors would give you a list of medical supplies you would have to purchase before they could attend to your injury."
Now she's seen that disparity firsthand, Mahalingam says she is even more determined to tackle it. "To do this on a larger level, I want to go medical school so I can develop those connections and resources," she says. "We can't do anything about Peruvian healthcare, but we can offer what we have and make somewhat of a difference."
And she can see her sister Mallika doing the same, but in her case by pursuing a degree in public health. "She enjoys traveling a lot so I could see her doing a similar program where she goes out and does community education, like teaching kids to wash their hands or informing parents about how to avoid getting parasites," she says.
Until then, Mahalingam hopes the Medical Careers Club - and the university - will consider making the trip an annual endeavor. "It really opens your perspective and your mind to a lot of different things you don't see in Alabama," she says. "And if you help one person, you've made a difference."