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A Prescription for Medical Immersion

An advanced Spanish course offers travel to Ecuador and a chance to see medicine being practiced firsthand

By Poornima Apte

Premed student Ares Alivisatos ‘21 was looking for hands-on medical volunteering opportunities that fit into his chosen schedule. “Especially going into my junior year, I’ll have a lot of work to do on my thesis, with my requirements and in the lab, so that’s a very real concern for me,” says Alivisatos, a junior majoring in molecular biology and pursuing a certificate in Spanish.

That's why “Spanish for a Medical Mission in Ecuador,” or SPA 204, seemed like a perfect fit. During the spring semester, students dive into the nuances of Spanish medical terminology in the Princeton classroom and prepare for a hands-on, experiential medical mission to Ecuador over spring break. Once on the ground, these students serve as translators between the Conestoga Eye Group, Pennsylvania-based ophthalmologists, and a local non-profit, Partners for Andean Community Health (PACH), which was originally called FIBUSPAM.

Medical mission

With a base in Riobamba, high in the Andes, the students travel to elementary schools in the area, help set up eye care clinics and assist in a variety of procedures. Students who take the course attest that heartwarming interactions are routine over the weeklong trip to the South American country.

Paloma Moscardó-Vallés, a lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, teaches the advanced Spanish course. “The power of human communication, just looking at these kids, interacting with them, that makes a huge impact on the students,” Moscardó-Vallés says. The week’s experiences in the spring of 2018 moved Alivisatos so much that he returned to work with PACH over the summer, as part of the Office of International Programs’ International Internship Program.

Accommodating travel as a premed

Bojan Lazarevic ’20, a senior majoring in molecular biology and a premed student, took the medical Spanish class in spring 2019. He also traveled to Mauritius in the summer of 2019 for a PIIRS Global Seminar, so this was not his first time abroad while at Princeton.

“Many people at first do not think it is possible to travel internationally as a premed student at Princeton, because there are a lot of classes to complete during specific semesters and they are very rigorous,” Lazarevic says. “But Princeton offers so many options for studying abroad, so something is bound to fit into your schedule.”

Hands-on experiential learning

Lazarevic plans on a career as an ophthalmologist, which made the case for his taking the medical mission course that much stronger. Interested in working in California or Arizona, states with large Hispanic populations, Lazarevic figured knowing medical vocabulary in Spanish would be useful. “I specifically took this course because I shadowed a retinal surgeon in Hershey, [Pennsylvania] last summer and was fascinated by the eye and the techniques surgeons implement to improve eyesight. When I heard about this class that offered a trip to Ecuador with eye doctors, I had to apply,” Lazarevic says.

In addition to the practical tips he learned, Alivisatos is especially grateful that the class included a discussion of medical ethics. “I didn’t want this to be a white savior kind of situation where you come in for a week and leave without any sustainable structure in place,” Alivisatos says. Fortunately PACH ensures continuity of care and is deeply invested in the region, Moscardó-Vallés says.

Nourhan Ibrahim ’20, a senior concentrating in ecology and evolutionary biology and pursuing certificates in global health policy and Latin American studies, appreciates the nuanced discussions both before and after the mission to Ecuador in spring 2019. “Critical reflection after your time abroad is not something many courses offer. I appreciated the critiquing before and after to reflect on the takeaways,” Ibrahim says. Such analysis got her thinking about larger concerns revolving around public health. It was one of the factors that prompted her switch from a premed to public health track.

For her part, Moscardó-Vallés is grateful that the students — 12 participated in the last trip — in the two years she has taught this course have been thoroughly engaged. “You have to prepare students for integration before you visit,” she says. “The model here works really well. The Ecuadorians drive this, they tell us what they need and we help the doctors implement their work,” Moscardó-Vallés says.

“It was truly a bonding experience that confirmed my interest in being a surgeon,” Lazarevic says. “I love children and want to work with children in the future,” he says. “This class offered me the perfect opportunity to work closely with over 1,000 children.”

Alivisatos adds that he enjoyed every aspect of the course and the weeklong hands-on, experiential learning. “It was great to use the Spanish that I had learned to effect some sort of meaningful change.”