I mentioned in a previous blog post that medicine is my calling. For me, that means it is something I want to do even if I weren’t paid to do it. I have put that to the test several times while volunteering at bush hospitals in Chad (Central Africa) and at a refugee camp in Greece.
However, we all have our limits. No matter how wonderful, and how much you love medicine, there will always be moments that break your heart and bring you to your knees. Most of the time, those moments are interspersed with happy, exciting moments, that help you breathe easier and give you the energy to keep going. But I discovered that sometimes, the heartbreak goes so deep that it’s hard to keep going.
Before starting my third year, I went to Chad for the 3rd time and worked closely with an OB-GYN. I was very excited because I love babies and I thought it would be an incredible experience. I was not prepared for the amount of death I encountered.
Chad is a country with no healthcare, no prenatal care, and very few qualified healthcare professionals. This means that women in labor have very little help. If something goes wrong, the mom dies, the baby dies, or they both die. We had a patient who had been in labor for 3 days and had to walk 26 miles to get to the hospital.
I assisted in several c-sections for full-term babies who were already dead, and mothers who were hemorrhaging from ruptured uteruses, on the brink of death themselves. A lot of the times, they needed hysterectomies to stop the bleeding. One of the babies was born alive, barely, and heard his heartbeats stop under my stethoscope. I actually have tears in my eyes as I type this.
It broke me.
I returned to Uruguay 3 days before starting classes, but I was broken. I couldn’t really talk about it because nobody could relate to what I had witnessed. And I couldn’t reconcile the two realities. I had reached my limit. I had no time to process my emotions, I had to push them aside and study. In order to keep my sanity, I did the only thing I knew could help: I asked for professional help and talked to a psychologist.
Volunteering is an invaluable experience, and I cannot describe how much I learned, and how much it has shaped my future in medicine. But after the third time in three years, I need a break. I need a real vacation before I start rotations next year. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: you can’t pour from an empty cup.