Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, Alajuelita, Costa Rica
Summer Entrepreneurial Internship Program
Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children
Alajuelita, Costa Rica
Almost 14 years ago a non-profit organization called Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC) decided to open its first clinic in Alajuelita, Costa Rica. FIMRC started operations as an organization for medical relief of children but shortly after opening the clinic they realized that one cannot significantly improve a kid’s health and knowledge on health without educating and treating their parents. Therefore, FIMRC’s clinic in Alajuelita mostly treats children and their mothers.
Alajuelita is a small town located within the ring of poverty that surrounds the nation’s capital, San José, and is home to 12,500 Nicaraguan refugees and impoverished Costa Rican citizens. A majority of its Costa Rican and Nicaraguan population, composed largely of women and their children, is medically uninsured. Although Costa Rica offers one of the best health care systems in Central America, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, many unemployed Costa Ricans that do not qualify for it cannot afford private insurance while Nicaraguans cannot receive this healthcare because they are not citizens. Thus, FIMRC clinic provides free medical, psychological and health education services to Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans that fall between the cracks.
Every morning I would wake up, get ready for work, have breakfast with my host family and got picked up to go to the clinic. Since I stepped inside the clinic the first day, I felt the loving and caring environment that enveloped our young patients. The staff was very welcoming. Every week at the clinic I spent time working at the waiting room desk taking medical information and vitals from the patients, in the pharmacy preparing medication for the patients, with the doctor in the examination room shadowing her while she did her evaluation, with the psychologist, helping out in the soup kitchen down the street or working on health education programs for the community. This rotation allowed me to get a broad understanding of all the different aspects that are needed to ensure the right of health in a community and my full knowledge of Spanish was especially helpful to the foundation. Many afternoons I would help the psychologist with directing dance, art and music therapy in a center for adults with mental and physical disabilities. Since I would go to the center at least three times a week, I had the opportunity to form relationships with all the members of the center.
During my eight weeks in Costa Rica, I learned a lot about mental health. Shadowing the psychologist gave me the opportunity to learn about the common mental issues in poor communities of Costa Rica as well as problems that many immigrants, especially Nicaraguans, face when arriving at Costa Rica. For me it was very interesting to see how Costa Ricans treated their immigrants and comparing that to how Americans think of and treat immigrants, especially Mexicans. Costa Ricans believe that immigrants are essential to their economy, while some Americans believe the opposite.
One of the most important jobs I did at the clinic is the health education program. In as little as eight weeks, I saw many changes in the health and education of many of the patients. My first week I had the opportunity to start a program for dental hygiene. The first day I got to the clinic I was surprised to see so many children with crowns and other dental work. I immediately asked the doctor why so many had those and learned about the lack of basic hygiene education in the community. After studying this topic for a week and working on a complete health education program focused on dental hygiene, I presented it to the community and gave out toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss, which I brought as donations. After this successful health education session, I had the opportunity to work with the FIMRC staff in raising money for a family of four young girls that had a severe infection in their mouths and needed an operation that cost 2 million colones, equivalent to approximately $5,000. Working with this family provided me with an insight into the living conditions and lack of knowledge on things that one could think are “common sense”. By my last week, we did a survey on dental hygiene and their knowledge had increased significantly. If those outreach efforts continue, I believe that they will result in a reduction the number and costs of dental procedures.
In addition to rotating the roles in the clinic, I also had the opportunity to help the clinic with providing orientation and training to the new one-week-volunteers that we received every week. Because I was the only volunteer fluent in Spanish, I helped the staff with answering phones, helping the psychologist and doctor with translations and helping other volunteers communicating with the patients. Training and coordinating volunteers and their rotations was the most challenging, but also enriching, role I had in the clinic. Every volunteer we received at the clinic had a different reason for volunteering and different strengths. As volunteer coordinator, I had to identify everyone’s strengths, weaknesses and their preferences in order to satisfy them. While working with the volunteers, I encountered many different personalities and I had to learn how to be more patient and help resolve problems among the volunteers. I also exercised a lot of leadership since I had to supervise the work in each station and also assist them when they needed me.
Overall, my internship with FIMRC Costa Rica through the Kellogg Institute was one of the most enriching and life-defining experiences that I have had. Every day provided new opportunities to grow from and I am glad I got to learn about the Costa Rican pura vida culture, healthcare system, government, common disease, among many other things. This internship also gave me an insight into my professional goal of becoming a pediatrician or studying public health. I am eternally grateful that I not only got to know and explore a beautiful country but I also got to meet its wonderful people. I hope one day I can return to this beautiful country and visit my family in Costa Rica.