Shortly after arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, Deirdre Ricuarte ’16 found herself in a pediatric oncology department. She and her fellow interns were charged with talking to the patients and their parents to learn about their conditions and treatments. Most of the children were too tired to interact. But one five-year-old boy, Christian, craved her attention.
“Every time Christian saw us he would scream our names and throw the blocks at the door because he wanted us to come in and play,” Deirdre recalled. Hampered by her rudimentary Spanish skills, she and the other interns found ways to connect with Christian in ways beyond words. They spent much of that week in his room, playing blocks, racing toy cars, and comforting him after painful procedures. “He called us his friends,” she said.
Honing Her Skills
A molecular biology major taking pre-med courses, Deirdre spent the summer in Bolivia as an intern with Child Family Health International. It offered her both valuable medical experience and the chance to improve her Spanish-speaking skills.
Deirdre, whose father is from Ecuador but didn’t speak Spanish at home, developed a solid foundation of Spanish reading and writing skills through coursework at Princeton, but found that in her Spanish classes she was “too afraid to be vocal and speak off the cuff.” Living in a Spanish-speaking country, she hoped, would help her overcome that barrier.
La Paz, a city of 835,000, was her home the first month of her internship. Her second month was spent in the more rural, smaller Tarija, where “all the families know each other’s names,” she said. “When you would get in a taxi you would just tell the driver the name of the family you were staying with. He would know where to go.”
The internship combined hospital and clinical rotations in different specialties, volunteer service, and living with local families. As a health care worker, Deirdre would see some people at their most vulnerable as she was immersed in their culture and language.
She learned from Bolivian medical staff members how to take vital signs, use ultrasound and electrocardiogram equipment, and scrub in to observe surgery, among other things. And she was exposed to larger health care issues: patients turned away for lack of beds; the difficulties of diagnosing and treating Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness endemic in Latin America; and the growing awareness of the value of regular medical checkups.
The experience showed her how many variables are at work in providing health care, and how much can go wrong along the way. “It was tough and eye-opening,” she said.
Bringing It Home
When Deirdre returned to Princeton in the fall, she found her experiences in Bolivia had prepared her well for her pursuit of a certificate in global health and health policy. “I had so much to say in class, and so much to think about, all prompted by the internship,” she said.
As for her Spanish, it is “ridiculously better,” she says. “I became one of the most vocal people in all of my Spanish classes.”
After graduating, she headed to Madrid for nine months to conduct research through a Fulbright grant, before beginning an MD/PhD program at Columbia University. She is helping to create a bacterium that can be used to remove toxins from contaminated water and soil. “The project offers exactly what I wanted: the opportunity to live in a Spanish-speaking country while developing my microbiology research skills.”
To learn more about supporting international internships at Princeton, contact Niki Emanuel, associate director of leadership gifts, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-258-3314.