First-time Project HOPE volunteer Kendra Dilcher discovers her career focus while working with children in Latin America. Read her story, in her own words:

Tumaco, Colombia seemed to be a strange place to begin my medical career.

“Why are you here?“ was the first question everyone asked when I boarded the USNS Comfort, one of the Navy’s two hospital ships. The answer was that, as a Project HOPE volunteer on the Continuing Promise 2009 mission, I was there to help provide health care services to some of the poorest people in the most dangerous places in Colombia and Panama. Not yet a physician, I worked with the HOPE administrative team to organize and carry out our mission. Being part of this team was a privilege, since it usually only consists of medical personnel.

As a premed student, my HOPE colleagues allowed me to observe and participate in surgical procedures aboard ship, including hernia repairs and laparoscopic cholecystectomies. After observing, I was asked to scrub in and assist during a breast biopsy. Standing next to our HOPE surgeon, it was awesome how she effortlessly guided the scalpel across the woman’s breast and removed the lump. I then helped suture the wound. How quickly we impacted this woman’s life.

To experience another aspect of medical care, I began assisting Project HOPE’s Dr. Iserson in the general medicine clinic onshore. Together we attended to sixty adults per day, with complaints ranging from back pain to cutaneous leishmaniasis. During this time I learned to take vital signs, to visually assess patients and to assist in diagnosing and treating their problems. Whether they needed labs, x-rays or a simple pat on the back, I was able to help make a difference every day in these peoples’ lives.

Dr. Iserson and I then changed focus and began working in the pediatric clinic. Children from across the country were brought to us with a variety of medical problems, including ichthyosis, epilepsy and parasitosis. Some parents simply needed to be counseled about nutrition to keep their children from losing weight or becoming anemic. Just hearing the doctor say their children were in good health brought tears of joy to parents.

When my eyes met Johnny’s, I knew I had found my niche in the medical field. Tears of pain rolled down his cheeks, piercing my heart before they struck the ground. After Dr. Iserson examined him, he told me that this seven-year-old child suffered from severe arthritis. At this point, a happy-face sticker was all I had to offer. I wanted to learn more about him, to understand his condition and to make a difference in his life. After obtaining permission from the physical therapy team, I requested that a wheelchair be sent via helicopter from the ship to our clinic to give to Johnny. Working through the hospital ship’s bureaucracy showed me that I could make a difference, despite my limited background. When the wheelchair arrived, I gently placed Johnny into the seat. Tears began rolling down his cheeks once again, but this time they were tears of hope. Hope for a new beginning, a new life.

For the remainder of the mission, I continued to work in the pediatrics clinic, giving hope to hundreds of children everyday. I soon realized that changing the life of a child changes the life of a family, which changes the life of a community, and helps to change the world. Being a part of this process has motivated me to follow my interest in medicine. I want to attend medical school to gain a greater knowledge of medicine in order to be better able to help others. This experience has given me a tremendous opportunity to learn about people living in unfortunate circumstances, and to be able to help make a difference in their lives.

With this, I wanted to express my gratitude to Project HOPE and the members of the Continuing Promise 2009 mission. This experience has helped to shape me into the person I am today, and I am forever grateful.

In retrospect, it wasn’t so strange to begin my medical career in Tumaco.

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