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MEDLIFE UChicago: The Need for Basic Health Care in Latin America


This coming spring break, a group of UChicago students will board a plane and travel to Tena, Ecuador. The quiet city in the Amazon rainforest will serve as the UChicago MEDLIFE team’s base from which they will set off every morning for the outskirts of Tena, where MEDLIFE mobile health clinics have been set up to treat the poverty-stricken population.

Locals from all over the area make their way to MEDLIFE’s Tena clinic, many in dire need of medical care that they are unable to afford. The situation is replicated in other parts of Ecuador, Panama, and Peru, where MEDLIFE’s mobile clinics reach out to address the medical needs of local residents, the vast majority of whom live day by day in poverty.

The dire need for primary and more advanced care was what pushed MEDLIFE founder, Nick Ellis, to travel to Ecuador as a University of Maine undergrad in 2005. After delivering medical services to rural villages, Ellis returned to the U.S. and founded MEDLIFE, intent on mobilizing students to volunteer and provide healthcare services in Latin America.

MEDLIFE has since expanded, with 50 university chapters in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, including one at UChicago. The organization’s growth has also allowed Ellis and his board to tackle bigger health and development projects, projects whose grassroots focus delights students like UChicago MEDLIFE co-Presidents Christie Auyeung and Alyssa Skar.

“There’s been a big shift over the past few years where organizations are starting to really focus on getting locals involved in their work, but most organizations still have very limited interaction with them,” says Auyeung. “MEDLIFE truly believes that the best way to understand and solve a problem is to see it from a local perspective, which is why we make sure that the people in the area are participants in our projects, not just observers.”


That includes recruiting doctors and volunteers from the region to administer care and help out with MEDLIFE projects. Rather than relying on imported medication and resources, MEDLIFE depends on personal interactions with locals to connect with every patient.

So far, the approach has paid off and is the driving force behind many MEDLIFE projects’ successes. The organization’s solid relations with local residents have even led MEDLIFE to discover more creative and ambitious solutions to improve living standards in each community.

Auyeung points to MEDLIFE’s staircase project as an example, demonstrating how volunteers can utilize grassroots knowledge of the area to create original, tangible solutions to improve community life. When providing care in rural Peru, MEDLIFE staff members repeatedly heard stories of injuries resulting from falls in the region’s hilly landscape, a fact that was backed up by the clinic’s visitors who had lived in the region for years. Recognizing that they could cut down on the injuries if they somehow counteracted the uneven terrain, MEDLIFE volunteers and local residents banded together to construct staircases that led up and down the hills, a solution that significantly reduced the number of patients hurt in falls.

“When you have [local] knowledge, you can come up with more innovative and effective responses to problems,” maintains Auyeung. “That’s why it’s so important for us to establish close relations with our patients. We want to think of solutions that will help them in the long-run, but you can only come up with the best solutions if you truly understand the environment, which is why we get the residents involved.”

To reveal the correlation between grassroots initiatives and the impact of development projects, MEDLIFE UChicago began rallying students to volunteer at MEDLIFE mobile clinics in Latin America. After a trek down to Peru last year, participating students will spend one week in Tena this year working with other MEDLIFE staff.

Among their priorities? Distributing medicine, running check-ups, and giving out basic necessities like dental care products. While the last task may seem rudimentary, severe poverty in the outskirts of Tena has tightly limited residents’ to acquire many resources for their daily care, meaning that it’s up to MEDLIFE volunteers to provide them.

“A lot of the areas we work in are so impoverished that [many patients] we talk to haven’t ever seen many things we take for granted, like a toothbrush or toothpaste,” says Skar. “This doesn’t mean that they’re primitive, and this doesn’t mean that they’re ignorant. What this means is that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure every person gets at least the most basic form of care.”

Part of that initiative involves promoting preventative care for women. In so impoverished a region, many women lack the resources and knowledge they need to maintain their physical and sexual health. But the challenge doesn’t just lie with providing materials and educating women about their bodies; MEDLIFE volunteers will need to fight social stigmas surrounding the issue while also respecting traditional customs. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, one that will need the assistance of local doctors who stand a better chance of getting through to the patients.


“You’ll see why it’s so necessary to have local doctors on our staff when you look at something like women’s preventative health,” states Skar. “Of course these women want to be healthy, but we’re going into communities that have fostered attitudes that go against a lot of what we want to accomplish. For example, religion is a big obstacle because many of these women see that the services we try to provide them can go against their religious beliefs.”

“You need these local doctors because they know the area’s customs and culture much better than you do, so they can approach these women about, for example, gynecological procedures. They’re much more able to communicate with patients in a way that will really get the message across without disrespecting our visitors’ beliefs.”

Ultimately, MEDLIFE aims to promote good health as a springboard for many other improvements. Whether it’s keeping families together or allowing patients to keep a steady job, the organization recognizes the importance of healthy living in building a community, something that they emphasize in Chicago as well.

“For students who may not be ready or able to help out at a mobile clinic abroad, we also volunteer in Chicago,” explains Auyeung. “Because MEDLIFE really stresses the local, grassroots component of our mission, we try to familiarize ourselves with Chicago, too, since that’s the community we live in on a daily basis.”

For now, the MEDLIFE UChicago team continues to hold fundraisers, including an upcoming chocolate-covered strawberry sale. All proceeds are donated to MEDLIFE, who then uses the funds to bolster their projects and mobile clinics in Latin America. While Auyeung and Skar acknowledge that the MEDLIFE UChicago chapter is quite small, they point to a growing interest among the student body that leaves much to be desired for the future.

“We’re being approached by a lot of undergrads and graduate students, and many of them aren’t actually pre-meds or medical students either,” says Auyeung. “It doesn’t matter what background you come from because in the end, if you believe that everyone should have a basic level of health care and services available to them, that’s all we’re looking for.”

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Annie Pei

U Chicago

Annie is a Political Science major at the University of Chicago who not only writes for Her Campus, but is also one of Her Campus UChicago's Campus Correspondents. She also acts as Editor-In-Chief of Diskord, an online op-ed publication based on campus, and as an Arts and Culture Co-Editor for the university's new Undergraduate Political Review. When she's not busy researching, writing, and editing articles, Annie can be found pounding out jazz choreography in a dance room, furiously cheering on the Vancouver Canucks, or around town on the lookout for new places, people, and things. This year, Annie is back in DC interning with Voice of America once again!
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