Volunteering abroad


Has any of you participated in any of the international volunteer programs? Can you share your experience and thoughts?

I have been volunteering in Latin America, predominantly Mexico, for the past decade. I got involved in international health because I wanted to combine my love of other cultures (I was an anthropology major in college) with a background in free health care (I ran some free clinics). Years ago, at a medical conference, I met a surgeon who was part of an “flying doctors” NGO that runs free health clinics in rural Mexico and Guatemala. He invited me to go along with him, and I now fly once a month into rural western Mexico, and stay for 3-4 days. During our stay, we see anywhere from 200-750 patients, and return to the U.S. We also have a Baja California clinic that I drive to (because I live in Southern California), although others fly there if they are from out of the area. We have our own clinics, with intake, waiting room, offices, surgery bays, instrument room, etc. We do the full gamut of services: general medicine, pediatrics, optometry, ophthalmology, podiatry, general surgery, urology, gastroenterology, cardiology (adult and pediatric), geriatrics. We hand out meds we bring with us or that are donated locally. Best of all, everything we do is free (yes, even free surgery) to our patients; if something costs money, we will do our darndest to raise the money. If we cannot fix a problem in Mexico, we make arrangements to bring the patient to the U.S. Most of our doctors and nurses are from the U.S., but we have a number of local Mexican doctors with whom we work and have built long-term relationships. We impart our knowledge and skills with these doctors. We also bring along medical students from several local medical, osteopathic, nursing, and podiatry schools to introduce them to our work and show them how medical care is handled outside the U.S., especially in a rural setting.

I like the work so much, it changed my medical interests, and now I want to do similar work (international rural health) in the future – assuming I get into medical school somewhere.

In my original post, I forgot to add a few things, but when I tried to do so, the time for editing had expired so:

We have four clinics in Mexico, 3 rural clinics in western Mexico, and one urban clinic in Tijuana. In addition, we make forays into the Sierra Madre Occidental, to Campeche in the south, and occasionally into Guatemala – although the distance is a long ways to travel.

We also do dental work, including not just extractions but fillings, root canals, and sometimes full prosthetics. Last week, we finished the reconstruction of a mouth for a patient born with a cleft palate. One of the American surgeons fixed the cleft lip, and the Mexican dentist gave the patient a full prosthetic teeth and a fitting for the hole in her hard palate. She now has a bright smile.

Although we train other doctors and students, our primary goal is to provide free health care to the poor in Mexico and occasionally other places in Latin America. We let the health students do whatever they feel comfortable with provided it is line with this mission. Most medical students start out doing vitals, sitting in on patient appointments, and observing surgeries. Advanced (3rd year, 4th year) may assist our surgeons and residents in operations.

We let regular volunteers do things like intake, vitals, organizing supplies, translate (if they are fluent in Spanish), etc. My main jobs are the above; I also assist in or run the pharmacy (depends on who else is there), clean and organize instruments for the surgeries, fix things when they are broken (electrical, plumbing, masonry).

Our clinic has a dormitory upstairs, so all of us volunteers work together, eat together (local woman cook for us using locally-grown foods), etc.

The camaraderie is nice, but we are not talking a fine hotel here; just cots made from burlap sacks. In the smaller villages, there is no nightlife, but typically we don’t have time for any schmoozing or boozing:

The days are long: we start seeing patients as soon as we arrive and may not stop until the “last patient is seen.” Last month our dental clinic saw patients until 1:00 a.m. in the morning every day for 3 straight days.

There are many AdComms who wonder why applicants do short term (e.g. weeks to a month) international volunteering stints when there is still a crying need at home. FWIW.



  • jcolwell Said:
There are many AdComms who wonder why applicants do short term (e.g. weeks to a month) international volunteering stints when there is still a crying need at home. FWIW

Good point, Judy.

First, while I only go on these international trips once or twice a month and only stay between 3 and 7 days, I have been doing this with the same organization for more than 10 years at the same clinics (I volunteer at one rural clinic early in the month, and one urban clinic later in the month.) I am doing the international volunteer work because my ultimate goal is to do rural health and international health between the U.S. and Latin America (or maybe subSaharan Africa, there is a greater need there).

Second, I have not forgotten about the people at home in the U.S. I ran a free health clinic for mostly homeless for more than a decade (as a volunteer; I turned down getting paid since I felt the money could be spent on more services), and I started two free mobile clinics targeting underserved groups, and ran them both for four years before leaving for post-bacc.

While in post-bacc, three years ago, I helped set up and still run free screening health fairs in a very low-income community here in California, in which doctors and mid-level practitioners screen patients for medical, dental, and optometric concerns.

Besides the health fairs, I also volunteer at a local homeless clinic, since that is where much of my experience lies (besides international health,of course).

The biggest problem that I've faced in starting and running free clinics and health fairs is trying to convince doctors and nurses to donate their time and services. Unlike my experiences in Mexico, where it was relatively easy to get new Mexican and American doctors to volunteer, getting U.S. doctors to donate a few hours of their time a month here in the U.S. is "like pulling teeth." The major issue is the fear of lawsuits and malpractice insurance. Many of the doctors doing U.S.-based volunteer work were afraid of litigation if something went wrong. The other issue was time, since most were too busy to offer the time. It took me nearly a year of cajoling and badgering some local ER doctors to help establish a mobile clinic that I set up, despite people in the area clamoring for it. And the health fairs took a year of planning and fundraising before the first one was done.

Because I am not a doctor or nurse, I cannot run a free clinic without them, but I also cannot do the work myself. When people ask me why I want to be a doctor, I point out what I have done and say, if I was a doctor it would have been much easier to establish these clinics and do the things I have done.