Home Country: Canada
Why should you be the IVHQ volunteer of the year?
During the month of June 2015, I was fortunate enough to travel to Antigua, Guatemala where I volunteered at two medical clinics in the towns of Santa Lucia and Santiago. Whereas many volunteering companies restrict the degree of patient interaction, I was able to not only talk with patients and help the nurses but to also learn how to administer vaccinations through IVHQ! I was presented with the chance to embrace my medical dreams and wholeheartedly did so. It was a truly amazing experience and I wish that I could return right now! For several weeks I looked forward to waking up at 6am and leaving for the clinics around 7am because I knew that I could impact others lives whilst learning about myself. This trip was a method of self-discovery as it helped me see that medicine is in fact the career path for me. It also permitted me to interact with patients, hearing their stories and learning from their wisdom, whilst practicing my Spanish.
Immediately after returning to Canada I wanted to give back to these clinics and after shadowing several surgeons I knew that I definitely could! I worked with my parish pastor, Fr. Ernie, in setting up a medical supplies drive during the months of July and August and within no time at all we had raised a little over a cubic meter (and 100kg) of medical supplies that would go back to not only the two clinics that I worked at but also all ten in Guatemala. But this is not where it stops - I love being proactive and consequently although I was devastated when I discovered that roughly 50% of the clinical cases are related to water-borne illnesses I recognized that this was preventable. We even had one patient who was denied help from a clinic many years in the past, despite having a heart attack, because the entire medical staff was dealing with diarrhea cases that day.
While staying in Guatemala, we were advised to not drink the tap water due to substandard water filtration and the presence of a plethora of pathogens. Consequently, I made many phone calls and found a company, Vestergaard, which dealt with making water filters. Their LifeStraw Community Water Filter filters bacteria, protozoan cysts, and viral pathogens from water, all to EPA standards and without the use of harmful chemicals, at a rate of 12L/h with a capacity of 50L for a total lifespan of 100,000L. That’s the moment where it really hit me – for only a few hundred dollars we could make an incredible massive impact on the health, lives, and economy since there would be increased efficiency through less illness, in these communities!
After discussing my goals of bringing such water filters to each of the clinics so that all community members could have access to clean drinking water, thereby reducing strain on the medical community by decreasing the prevalence of preventable water-borne illnesses, I managed to negotiate a fair price. Upon seeing the success of my Medical Supplies Drive, I decided to embrace my community by starting an online crowd-funding campaign, to help bring these filters to the Guatemalan clinics. To date we have raised enough for more than one filter and aim to supply each clinic with at least one filter in the upcoming year. Based on the success of this project, I plan to eventually talk in front of the UN to convince them to help with implementation of such water filters in countries with very little access to clean water, pointing at the medical benefits (once I have analyzed all of the data from my current Guatemalan water project and how significant the decrease in clinical cases is). Although none of this work could have occurred without the support of my family, friends, and community, I believe that my initiatives exemplify exactly what the IVHQ Volunteer of the Year should be.
What motivated you to get involved with volunteering?
My parents have always been the driving force for me to be the best person that I could be. Coming from communist Poland, they grew up in all of the hardships but taught my sister and me to not only value what we have but also to give back to the community and to those who do not have anything. For as far back as I can remember, we would all come together as a family and send our clothes to an orphan family in Poland. It pained 5-year-old me to see some of my shirts go to someone I didn’t know, but my parents convinced me that it was better to help others and within no time at all I was in the giving mood and looked forward to those annual donations. It made me feel great on the inside almost like getting that very first kiss! Several years later I was old enough to start volunteering and I finally began to see that I could physically make a difference in someone else’s life (I started volunteering in a retirement home working with elders on an individual basis). I loved helping others, hearing others’ stories, and just learning from other people’s wisdom and this compelled me to volunteer more and more. This past summer I had free time, as I was old enough and didn’t have to right the MCAT anymore, so I convinced my parents to let me volunteer in Guatemala and I’ve never felt so alive! Admittedly, I was inspired by my great high school friend, Ben Li, to follow my heart and specifically volunteer abroad at medical clinics in Guatemala through IVHQ. It’s been fantastic and the same feelings from donating clothes to volunteering for the first time still remain in me each time I volunteer!
How much time do you dedicate to volunteering?
Personally, I believe it’s more important to consider the amount of effort put into volunteering rather than the actual number of hours. During the summer months I spend a handful of hours volunteering each week, and volunteer for nine consecutive days at the Rogers Cup Tennis Tournament in Toronto, Canada, while volunteering over 10h a week during the school year but I spend significantly more time working in the background. While setting up the Medical Supplies Drive, in July, I was also shadowing cardiac surgeons and surgical oncologists so I would wake up at 5am and make it for rounds and early morning surgery then returning home around 7pm (to even 9pm some nights) after which I would make Medical Supplies Drive posters and organize the logistics. Despite focusing so much time on a lot of this administrative and set-up work, going to sleep around 2am daily, I truly enjoyed knowing that I would be making a difference in many people’s’ lives! Similarly, while studying at school and doing my regular volunteer work, I play a pivotal role in ensuring that we find an agency to transport the medical supplies for a reasonable price as well as working to increase the amount of donations the crowd-funding sites gets. After all of my school work, Medical School applications, extracurriculars, volunteering, and this administrative background work for my volunteering projects, I usually go to sleep around 4:30am only to wake up a few hours later for university. Thankfully applications are done for now so my “bedtime” goes back to 2:30am but it’s still a testament to the amount of work I put into volunteering. That being said, I think that it is essential that we try our hardest to help others and learn from the process. I’ve grown as a person and am thankful for all of these 4:30am nights, particularly because they’ve given me a sense of what it is like to be a surgeon and having to work late hours to save patients’ lives and I’m grateful for that challenge!
What is the most rewarding part of your volunteer work?
Unfortunately there is no one single “most rewarding part” of my volunteer work; instead, the experience is multifaceted with a plethora of personal benefits. I love the feeling of helping others whether it is through physically helping out at the clinics or through organizing a Medical Supplies Drive and a crowdfunding water campaign. At the same time, because I love travelling, I was blessed with the chance to see a different part of the world and live within a different culture. I met so many great people and grew a tight bond with each family that I had in Guatemala (a different one each week) and family means everything to me! Furthermore, it’s extremely rewarding to work in a medical clinic, almost as a doctor, because it affirmed my ambitions to work in the medical field whilst also desiring to travel across the world helping all of those in need. It’s also amazing realizing that, hopefully, within several months each clinic will have their own water filter and thus be able to alleviate the burden of preventable water-borne illnesses and so spend more time on patients with conditions such as diabetes and heart attacks. Finally, it may sound rather corny but I loved wearing my scrubs and walking down to the bus stop, through the marketplace, or even through the clinics all while being called a doctor!
What is the greatest challenge of your volunteer work?
The greatest challenge of volunteering at the medical clinics in Guatemala was the language barrier, particularly since I had no Spanish background. It was a challenge communicating with others in the clinics especially since every time I began to talk I commenced thinking in French. Thankfully, however, I was able to understand about 85% of the Spanish conversations since English, French, and Polish (my languages) share a great background with Spanish and I practiced Spanish on quite a few apps on my iPad. That being said, talking to others was still quite difficult though I aspire to one day be fluent in Spanish so that I can return and help (and perform surgeries for) a few Guatemalan communities.
In terms of my current work, specifically organizing the transport of the Medical Supplies that were raised, the greatest challenge is not having any background in the field. It is extremely difficult and time consuming trying to find a company that will ship medical supplies from Canada to Guatemala for cheap especially considering the fact that I have never done this before so neither I nor my family initially knew how to approach the scenario. Thankfully, after all of our hard work and tenacity we have taken several leaps in the right direction and found an amazing cargo company and know how to approach this scenario in the future.
Why do you believe you will be effective volunteering within a community abroad?
Firstly, I have been volunteering for many years and have put in hundreds upon hundreds of hours into volunteering so not only do I acknowledge the amount of hard work that goes into volunteering but I am also very passionate about making a difference in the community. For instance, I have already volunteered in medical clinics through IVHQ in June 2015 and was so inspired by the experience that I spent a large portion of my summer and school year organizing a Medical Supplies Drive, a crowdfunding water campaign, and figuring out exactly how to ship the raised donated medical supplies to the Guatemalan clinics I worked at.
Adding to this, I love listening to stories and working with others so I know that I can be instrumental in setting up a great working environment by volunteering at a community abroad. Having a critical role in my student council, as the Vice President of Internal Affairs on the McGill Anatomy and Cell Biology Student Society (MACSS), I am familiar with both working under pressure and in a team environment wherein I listen to all opinions and collaborate to help best represent my student body. For this reason, I would help instill a great working environment for my team whether that is considered as other volunteers, people in my volunteer house, or the staff and patients in the medical clinics.
Finally, I am the type of person who does not quit. I problem solve and also go the extra mile! This can be seen by the tremendous number of hours I work for school, my extracurriculars, volunteering, and dedication towards my Medical Supplies Drive. It was extremely difficult maintaining all of these aspects in my life but I managed to persevere and was able to work with my family to find a great cargo transportation company. Rather than giving up when no company was cheap enough or would decrease their prices, we managed to find a great company and this is important in a volunteer because one must be able to both problem solve and use their tenacity to find the solution to a problem encountered while volunteering within a community abroad.
What are you hoping to gain from an international volunteer experience?
One of my favourite things about volunteering abroad is the fact that you are able to increase your perspective on life. I want to be a surgeon but I am bound to face many ethical dilemmas so it’s great to be able to see how various different cultures deal with each particular situation and through this I can grow and adapt my own set of ideals. Furthermore, volunteering abroad helps me increase my language skills so that I can reach out to and help everyone in my multicultural Canadian community. Adding onto this, working in impoverished communities and clinics is a phenomenal way to learn to appreciate my health care system whilst discovering ways to reduce costs by looking at how frugal other societies are. I’m hoping to gain some new stories, and inspiration, so that not only can I look back in a positive manner but so that I could also influence others to do the same and try to change the world one step at a time!