Caroline Seng, a graduate of Mallard Creek High who now attends Duke University, spent her summer participating i n the Engineering World Health’s Summer Institute in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. There, she helped hospitals repair medical equipment and learned a number of critical lessons. Now a junior, she is a member of the biomedical engineering society, volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, and is on the Dean’s List.
Q: What is your most memorable moment of the trip?
I’ll never forget the moment in Nicaragua when we finished repairing our second infant incubator.
The fan motor had become so loud it was deafening in the chamber and no place for a neonate (newborn). We spent two days assessing the problem with the motor, and finally discovered that there was no repairing it; we had to replace it. After a visit to a supply store and finding no replacement, the maintenance staff gave it up with a shrug and prepared to call it a loss.
It killed me that something so little could condemn a machine that was otherwise perfectly usable. So I went to a supermarket and bought a small desk fan. We stripped it of its extra plastic parts and rigged it up inside the incubator. It was a highly unorthodox idea, but it worked. The workers were so surprised and happy to see what we’d done.
Q: Can you take readers through a typical day in Costa Rica and Nicaragua?
The trip was divided into a training month in Costa Rica and an application month in Nicaragua.
During the first month I lived in a homestay in San José with five other girls. We’d take the bus into the city at 7 a.m. and attend Spanish classes from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. at a partner language school. After lunch, we would have training on medical equipment repair (a mixture of lecture and laboratory exercises). We’d have the evenings to ourselves to go out and explore the city, or hang out with our host families. Every Friday we’d travel to hospitals to get experience repairing equipment. On weekends we were tourists, traveling all over the country and staying in hostels. In this way, I feel we got to know the country pretty well.
For the second month, we split into pairs and scattered to all corners of Nicaragua. My partner and I were stationed in the remote town of Boaco in the mountains of central Nicaragua. We lived with a hospital administrator. Every day we’d take a bus to the hospital, just 15 minutes outside town, and work with the maintenance staff of the hospital (they don’t have any engineers or technicians) to fix medical equipment. We worked 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and used the afternoons to fill out research-related forms for our program. Like in Costa Rica, the weekends were ours to explore the country as tourists. I can now say I’ve tried out the extreme sport “volcano boarding,” and have swam in a volcano crater lake!
Q: What was most challenging?
The language barrier was quite a challenge to overcome. My partner and I both had about four years of Spanish before our trip, which sounds like a lot, except that we had received next to no practice speaking Spanish; all we’d gotten was written and oral practice.
Q: What is one thing you have learned?
I can’t count how many new things I’ve learned about Costa Rican and Nicaraguan culture from my experiences. But more than anything I feel that I’ve learned to be more independent and confident. In my past team experiences there is usually someone who knows the turf better than I do, or someone more eager to call the shots than I am.
That was not at all the case in Nicaragua.
After the first few days of twiddling our thumbs being tentative and not getting very much done, it hit me very solidly that if I wanted to get something done, I was going to have to take full control of the situation.
It’s easy to sit back and let someone else handle it, but in my case, there was no one else to catch it. I could either decide not to care, the easy way out, or I could brave the discomfort and jump in with both feet. Having chosen the latter, I feel I’ve gotten so much more out of the experience.
Now, back home, perhaps I’ll be more of an advocate for the change I want to see in other areas, too.
Q: Did you come across any challenges in your work?
Being foreigners, we encountered a certain amount of distrust, for want of a better word…
I can’t blame them; they didn’t know a thing about us… To earn their trust we did our jobs well and demonstrated that we knew what we were doing.
Q: When you tired, what kept you motivated?
In the hospital, all I had to do was look around at all the doctors, staff members and patients. They benefitted directly from our efforts and in talking to them, I could see how my efforts would pay off.
Q: What are three things people should carry with them at all times?
First: Bags. Cloth, grocery, plastic Ziploc or otherwise. You can never have enough things to carry other things in.
Second: Scissors. There are an unbelievable number of things you could need to cut on a daily basis and it’s nice not to have to go running in search of the proper tool.
Third: Sunglasses are very useful, not only for blocking UV rays, but for keeping the majority of the road dust out of your eyes.
Q: What advice would you give to kids who want to make a difference?
I applaud anyone who thinks to make a difference in their community! Chances are if you’ve thought about it, you’ve identified a sort of problem or need to be met. I’d encourage you to talk about it with as many people as you can. Other people are a valuable resource. They know about all kinds of things and may have really good advice. They might even be able to hook you up with more people who have the same ideas as you do.