Erin Ferrentino - Medicine & Healthcare, Midwifery in Peru
Upon landing in the tiny airport of Cuzco, Peru, my heart was pounding. Sleepy-eyed families around me were mumbling to each other in Spanish, and collecting their belongings. Understanding just bits and phrases of floating conversations around me, I thought what the heck am I doing here?
I was met outside the airport by a smiling Projects Abroad staff member, who quickly ushered me into a taxi. As we drove down narrow, stone streets, I looked up at the lush green mountains and tiny red-roofed houses, and thought this is exactly where I am supposed to be. I was brought to my home, just minutes from the bustling town square or Plaza De Armas, and was introduced to my family.
My host mother, Martha, was making a breakfast of waffles and fresh squeezed juice. My host father, Javier, was getting my little brother and sister ready for the day. I felt light headed from the altitude, and my stomach was in knots, but I felt reassured by all the congenial faces around me.
Prior to my trip, Projects Abroad had contacted me almost immediately after I had signed up for the 3 month Midwifery program in Cuzco, Peru. I was assigned to a young woman, Kate, who periodically called me and answered all my questions. What do I wear to work? Should I bring my host family a gift? What if I’m not entirely fluent in Spanish?
Up until my departure, Projects Abroad staff was always available to call, and ensured that my travel plans were in order. I knew the details of my placement and my host family almost an entire month before I left, which certainly made me feel more comfortable and confident.
My Midwifery Placement
I was assigned to work at a small public health clinic in San Jeronimo, Peru, which is about 30 minutes by combi or bus from my home. This clinic is the only organization in all of the greater Cuzco area that provides labor services to women and allows volunteers to assist in birth. To my knowledge, Projects Abroad is one of the very few, if not the only, study abroad program that provides placements for students to volunteer in live birth. This provided for some life changing experiences.
On my first day of work, I was greeted outside my door by a Projects Abroad staff member, who rode the combi with me to work and introduced me to the staff at my clinic. The waiting room was filled with women from the town of San Jeronimo, almost all with their babies tied to their backs with colorful textiles. Doctors and nurses walked quickly in the halls, a sense of urgency in their step. The clinic was bustling and it took about an hour or so for me to be paired up with an obstetrician. I ended up working with this same obstetrician for my entire stay in Peru, and we forged a mentor/mentee relationship.
A Projects Abroad staff member would stop by the clinic about once a week and check in on me. Her name was Patti and she was extremely kind. A few weeks into my placement, I asked Patti if I could potentially assist in a birth. She told me to be patient, and ask the obstetrician I had been working with. Every day for weeks, I would ask my doctor, will there be any births today? and he would laugh at my eagerness.
Finally, the day came. After proving my competence in the labor room, I was able to assist in the births that occurred during my shift. I was extremely lucky to be placed at that particular clinic, and paired with such willing doctors. However, I knew if I ever did have any problems, that Patti was always available to offer advice and act as a liaison between the staff and myself.
A quick word of advice: If you want a more hands-on experience at your workplace, you need to step up to the plate and show you are competent and willing. It would have been very easy for me to go into work every day and simply observe. It took persistence for me to get involved, but by the end of my placement I was conducting prenatal exams, and assisting in labor, all of which I had only read about in textbooks.
My Host Family in Peru
One of the most valuable parts of my entire experience was living with a host family. It was the best way for me to fully immerse myself in authentic Peruvian culture. I ate three meals a day with my family, and often helped cook. On Saturday mornings, I would go to the market with my host mother and help buy all the groceries we needed for the week. These were markets that tourists did not frequent, and more than once I was mistaken as my host mother’s daughter.
Our entire family also went on numerous outings together, to share a meal at a local eatery or visit an Incan ruin. My host mother also invited me out with her friends to go dancing on weekends or see a local band. I was always included in activities that involved my little brother and sister as well. I would escort my host brother to karate lessons, and help out at birthday parties.
Thanks to my host family, I became fluent in Spanish very quickly. My host father was fascinated by American politics and our way of living, so dinnertime conversation was a great opportunity for me to practice speaking about such things in Spanish. My host mother also helped me find a Spanish teacher in the area, and encouraged my mastery of the language. Again, I was very lucky to be placed with a family that was so willing to include me such aspects of their lives.
I want to offer the same advice about living with a host family that I did about work placement: If you want to be immersed in Peruvian culture and connect with your family, you need to be persistent and show willingness. I asked my mother if I could go to market with her, and had to wake up at the crack of dawn to do so. I offered to babysit my little brother and sister, and thus developed a trusting relationship with my family. It would have been easy to simply show up at mealtimes and otherwise keep to myself, but this wasn’t the experience I was looking for.
Peru is an incredible country and Projects Abroad offers the resources to have an authentic experience as well as get hands-on practice in the field of your choice. Because of Projects Abroad, I was able to get to live with an incredible family, practice midwifery, and create a solid community. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without their resources or support. Your experience is what you make it - dive in and don’t be shy!