Guatemala: AMSA IOP

Lekaa Elhajjmoussa

Lekaa Elhajjmoussa is a third year UCLA undergraduate student majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in English. She is also the International Outreach Project (IOP) Director for UCLA’s chapter of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). Every summer, IOP travels to a third world or developing country to provide volunteer medical assistance to those in need. Last summer, Lekka led a group of nine UCLA undergraduate students to Peru. This summer, she led 11 students on a volunteer medical trip to Guatemala. For both trips, Lekaa worked with the International Volunteer Headquarters organization (IVHQ). With their help, the group traveled to the colonial city of Antigua, and surrounding villages, along with a fluent Spanish-speaking volunteer coordinator. IVHQ connected the volunteers with Maximo Nivel, an organization that focuses on volunteering abroad in Latin America. They were with Lekaa and the other volunteers every step of the way, including placing each of the volunteers in a home with a host family for the entirety of the trip. All the volunteers stayed in Antigua, former Guatemalan capital.

For two weeks, Lekaa and the other student volunteers worked with regional doctors to travel to a different village every day of the trip. A typical day began at 6:00 AM in order to reach the different villages by 8:00 AM. These are villages where residents may have never seen doctors or received any kind of medical attention before. Volunteers were able to do hands-on work by pre-diagnosing patients, taking vitals, and prescribing medicine. The days were long, but incredibly rewarding. Some days, they would volunteer until 4:00 PM, while they would volunteer until 2:00 PM on others and take the rest of the day to explore and get to know the region. Some of the highlights included a volcano hike and traveling to Belize.

The group consisted of 11 undergraduate pre-medical UCLA students. They were chosen after filling out an application and being interviewed. The final group was chosen by Lekaa and an IOP intern. Lekaa wanted a group that was passionate about the cause and easy to get along with, and she was successful in finding that group. Every student on the trip was impressive in their own way, taking every challenge head on. Not even language was an obstacle for the group. In fact, one volunteer who went into the trip speaking little to no Spanish left with the ability to count to one hundred. Additionally, each student was responsible for paying for their own trip; all fundraising they did went directly to service recipients. In total, the group was able to fundraise $900 to purchase medicine and storage containers for the villagers, as well as to support one of the nursing homes they visited.

Collectively, their favorite part of the trip was meeting all of the different people in the various villages. Everyone they met was so appreciative of the work they were doing. The volunteers were constantly showered with sincere “thank yous” and tears of joy. Many of the patients explained how medical care was something they had never experienced before. Some patients even walked for two hours in order to get to the villages they had heard were receiving medical treatment. Overall, this experience taught Lekaa a lot about human nature and the importance of giving back. She learned that on the trip they needed to just help in whatever way they could and to always go back because that is the only way these people will get help. This trip impacted Lekaa as a personal revelation that her passion is for global health and that this is what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

Other UCLA students can get involved by joining AMSA, whose other committees include community and public health, domestic violence, health education and nutrition, integrative medicine, legislative affairs, and student affairs. Students and non-students can also find other volunteer abroad trips through IVHQ.

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