This past April while on the International Board Retreat, I had the unexpected opportunity to return briefly to the community in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua where I served 40 years ago as an Amigos volunteer. We were visiting a site in the area, and all the people on the bus with me agreed that they would tolerate a detour so that I could see the place I had lived: a neighborhood health clinic that provided us space to sleep and to plan our forays into the neighborhoods of the town and its aldeas to immunize all the kids under six against measles. It was unbelievably cool and moving for me to see the clinic again after so many years, still there, still serving the people. That’s dedication! As a pediatrician, I later found myself wishing I knew more about what they do there now and what current health issues they deal with, now that Nicaraguan children get early basic immunizations at a high rate.
Although very brief, this visit was highly evocative, and brought home to me both what a privilege it was to be a small part of a larger public health effort and what a deep impact the experience, in all its complexity, discomfort, and brevity had on my life. It played a role in my choice of specialty, as I interacted with scores of less-than-thrilled vaccinees and grateful parents and learned that I felt comfortable in that setting. It led indirectly to further training in tropical medicine and to ongoing medical on-call backup with Amigos during the summer months when the volunteers are in their communities.
The “Amigos experience,” as so many have found, was nothing at all like what I expected but even better, deeper, and more challenging for the following 40 years and counting, and I am deeply grateful.
Flora Pirquet visiting the clinic she volunteered at 40 years prior.