Prior to our departure for Belize, we had nightly classes for the Global Health and Physiology course associated with the trip. I learned a great deal about global health, disease, and the various factors that go into making a successful global health initiative. One thing that we focused on a lot was the importance of respecting culture when doing any sort of medical work abroad. Each group of people holds their own set of beliefs and values that need to be taken into account before travelling. In addition to respecting culture, it is very important to understand their culture. Educating yourself on the ways of life of the people you will be helping can be very beneficial when it comes to medical care and treatment.
I saw a fantastic example of this when I was working on my first day of the clinic. We were working in San Joaquin, a small village about 30 minutes outside of Corozal, Belize. At this clinic we had the pleasure of working with Dr. Estrata and Dr. Trejo – both native to Belize and were currently practicing in Belize as physicians. A mother came into the clinic to get medical treatment for her and her 1 year old daughter. Upon first seeing the child, I noticed she had what seemed to be scabbed burns all over the edges of her mouth. When I was speaking with the mother and asked why she brought her daughter to see the doctor, she never once mentioned the burns. I was unsure of whether or not she felt comfortable discussing it with me, so I decided to just let the doctor evaluate them and didn’t pry any further. Once we met with Dr. Trejo, he looked at the daughter and immediately said: “Oh! So I see she has been eating a lot of mangoes recently” to which the mother laughed and shook her head yes. When the exam was over, Dr. Trejo explained to me that the children in Belize often eat fruit straight off of the trees without much cleaning or preparing. When a mango is picked fresh or has just recently fallen off the tree, a person can get what is known as mango rash. According to the remote health atlas, “Mango rash is a form of contact dermatitis which is caused by skin contact with the sap of the mango. It is commonly seen in mango growing areas during mango picking season” (Northern Territory Government 2013).
I was so amazed at this because if we had decided to bring doctors from the United States into the clinic, they more than likely would have no idea what the burns were from. They might have done unnecessary testing, administered unnecessary medication, or came to conclusions that were wrong just because they don’t have the cultural knowledge that Dr. Trejo has from living in Belize. The patient and her daughter were able to receive complete and accurate medical care in a timely fashion due to the cultural and medical expertise Dr. Trejo provided. This proves how important it is to use doctors (or just people in general) from the culture you are working with. I learned this lesson hands on and will make sure to apply it to any work abroad I do in the future.