January in Bolivia


The streets of La Paz.

One of my  nursing classmates, Maureen Smith, had quite the adventure over the winter break. She decided to pay it forward and spend some time working at a hospital in Bolivia. Enjoy the interview and learn about this amazing opportunity.

Anne Morris: Tell me a bit about this trip.

Maureen Smith: It was possible because of some scholarship money I received last semester. I knew I wanted to go abroad, but I also felt like I should give back. I also wanted to get some clinical experience.

AM: How did you hear about it?

MS: I actually found out about it through the CFHI (Child Family Health International) UMB’s Global Health website. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it work so last minute and I also wasn’t sure if I could afford the program and the flights, but CHFI was really patient and flexible with me. The program recommended the La Paz, Bolivia program because they have a pediatric medicine program there and I want to be a pediatric nurse.

AM: What was your first impression of Bolivia?


(Left to right) Austin, a pre-med student from Johns Hopkins, Jenn, a pediatric resident from Wisconsin, and Maureen grab a Bolivian ice-cream treat!

MS: I thought it would be easier to navigate knowing some Italian and French, but
Spanish was harder than I thought, and the adjustment was harder for me than I expected. I was very grateful to have two other girls in my program that knew Spanish well, and my program director was extremely helpful and supportive.

I didn’t see a whole lot of Bolivia outside of La Paz, which is in the mountains but still very much a city. It is pretty cramped and right away you see the poverty there, but Bolivian culture is rich, beautiful, and full of life, which was very refreshing.

AM: Tell me about the hospitals?

MS: They were not as clean and spacious as our hospitals for clinical, but certainly not run down. Infection control was interpreted very differently which was a little nerve-wracking and uncomfortable for me! I’m used to erring on the side of wasting syringes, gloves, etc., but these hospitals couldn’t afford to waste medical supplies. Most of the charts were handwritten (or typed on a typewriter!), as were prescriptions, so everything took longer. However, the doctors I worked with were really invested and I was really inspired by them.

The first week I was in a private secondary hospital shadowing doctors on a post-partum unit and in the pediatric clinic. We spent most of the time in the clinic where we saw kids for well visits and sick visits. I got to help with some assessments and newborn screenings, but I mostly observed, listened, and learned. Occasionally, we saw anomalies I’ve never encountered, like babies with clubbed feet and cleft palates. The second week I was on the Infectious Disease unit and clinic at a public tertiary pediatric hospital, where kids are often sent from other hospitals. Most of the time I participated in rounds and assessments with the doctors and residents, but also got to help the nurses a bit. The doctor I followed spoke English and he taught me a lot about Bolivia, infectious disease there, and about the types of antimicrobial medications they use. Unfortunately, they can’t get some of the stronger medications, which makes treating disease more difficult.

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The colorful, local women.

AM: Where did you live?

MS: I lived in Sopocachi in La Paz, in a homestay near one of the hospitals. The person I stayed with didn’t speak English very well, which made it difficult!

AM: What is the most memorable thing that happened while you were there?

MS: Making some of the kids laugh! On the infectious disease unit, there were many kids who were crying a lot and in pain. I was able to make this one little boy laugh who had been crying for most of the day. He let me hold him and we played with latex glove balloons. The next day he remembered me and gave me the most precious smile! There was also an adolescent girl with peritonitis who was in a lot of pain, so I would dance in front of her door whenever the doctors weren’t looking to make her laugh. It’s always a good day when you leave smiles and laughs on the unit!

A memorable but sad moment was when I visited the oncology unit. One of the doctors had a patient there who developed an infection after having chemotherapy. She was 11, and was in terrible pain, and the doctors only had certain types of antibiotics. (She was also very poor, so that might have limited her treatment options.) It looked like she probably wouldn’t make it and it hurt so much to know that in the U.S. we might have been able to give her more treatment that this hospital wasn’t able to access. I wished I could have helped her more, and it really put into perspective how privileged we are in the U.S.

AM: What is one thing you learned from this experience?

MS: Gratitude! So many things, but gratitude over all. There is so much I take for granted here, and this experience helped me to see how most of the world lives. This trip really illuminated the blessings in my life. This was the biggest gift of the entire two weeks, but I somehow find it harder to put into words. I am still unpacking it I think!

AM: Would you recommend something like this to others?

MS: Yes! This program was fantastic and helped me to gain both clinical experience and language/cultural skills. I highly recommend traveling to countries such as Bolivia, because I learned so much about myself and others. Ironically, seeing the differences helped me see how similar we all are. We are all humans, and it is humbling to realize that I have done nothing to deserve the privileges I have been given. It gave me so much perspective and gratitude, and I believe it will help me be a better nurse and a better person. So, to anyone considering it, definitely go for it!


View of La Paz from a gondola.

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