Morgan Hubbard ’20 knows zero Spanish. Yet after hearing about the MEDLIFE program from a physics discussion session, the junior biology major decided to spend part of her winter break in Peru to support local low-income communities. After a 14-hour flight from Chicago via Panama City, Hubbard arrived in the hostel that would act as the MEDLIFE group’s base for the week in Southern Lima.
MEDLIFE, which stands for Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere, is a national non-profit organization that partners with low-income communities across Latin America and Africa to help improve their access to healthcare, education and other basic necessities.
Established in 2005, MEDLIFE has a stated vision of “a world free from the constraints of poverty,” and allows students to attend service learning trips — called “brigades” — to support its mission. Through the organization’s Cornell chapter, students travel to Peru and Ecuador over breaks to provide services to local communities.
According to Hubbard, MEDLIFE’s destination was a part of a Lima metropolitan area that is home to almost one million people who live in extreme poverty. They live in homes built from plywood into rocky hillsides without access to clean water and electricity. Through MEDLIFE, college students get to interact directly with Peruvian patients and medical staff in mobile clinics as they travel among these communities.
Each day, students would rotate through different stations: dental care, triage, pharmacy, obstetrician and gynecologist, a toothbrushing workshop and a development project, according to Hubbard.
On the first day of the brigade, Hubbard’s group began working on their development project: a staircase to allow the community to safely travel up and down the treacherous hillside. Precariously steep paths had long made it difficult for pregnant women, children and older members of the villages to get water.
Community members had already laid the groundwork for the staircases by placing wooden blocks along the hillside, Hubbard said, and all that was left to be done by her team was to pour concrete into the wooden molds and paint the staircase.
“In a biased way, I think it was the hardest day. There was concrete at the bottom and we had paint buckets that we were passing, one by one, up the hill…there were some buckets flying,” Hubbard said.
“It’s not an easy thing to do but it’s a small thing that makes a big impact there,” she continued.
When the staircase was completed and painted red, the community celebrated by breaking a bottle of champagne on the site while a band played and children danced in traditional clothing.
Throughout the rest of the week, Hubbard shadowed a doctor, a pharmacist, a gynecologist and a dentist. The MEDLIFE students and doctors worked in mobile clinics and traveled from village to village across Southern Lima. Students acted as informal medical and dental assistants, working in tents that were set up roadside.
“If you want to even shadow [in the U.S.], you have to go through 800 hoops and sign forms and take classes just to get there. But there, you just jumped in. You’re really in there with them, it’s a hands-on experience that you can’t get here,” Hubbard said.
While Hubbard learned a lot from working with the MEDLIFE doctors, her most lasting memories came from personal interactions with the patients.
“There was a woman who, when I gave her her medication at the pharmacy station, she started crying,” Hubbard recalled. “I’m not sure what I gave her — I think I gave her ibuprofen or something that she needed, nothing big, but she started crying and gave me kisses on the cheek.”
According to Hubbard, even providing basic hygienic tools like toothbrushes and toothpaste made a big impact. At the toothbrushing station, Hubbard and other students taught children how to brush their teeth — for the first time.
“They could be up to 12 years old getting their first toothbrush,” Hubbard said. “It seems like such a small thing until you’re with them like that and they’re so happy and you don’t realize … it really put things in perspective.”
Hubbard said that the experience also opened her eyes to the socioeconomic differences among global communities and how much medical aid could mean.
“If I have a cold then I can just go to Cornell Health, even if it’s not incredible, I can just walk over there. But for them, MEDLIFE will come however often they can. Even then it’s not enough. They deserve more,” Hubbard said.
Now, while back on campus, Hubbard is still providing help to the communities in Peru by contributing to MEDLIFE fundraisers, with a goal of helping to build the third floor of a community center in the Miraflores district.
MEDLIFE is currently accepting applications for their spring break brigade to Lima, Peru.