Alec Morse - 2015 Program Participant

Doctor dressed for surgery

First day in surgery

What inspired you to travel abroad?

Traveling is an important part of my life that allows me to experience other cultures, gain new knowledge, learn some new skills, and meet different people. There is something special about spending an extended period of time in another country and living like the locals live. As someone who is studying abroad, you are placing yourself in their shoes and discovering the unique differences in behavior that come with growing up in a country other than your home country. It is beautiful to see these people interact with one another and to interact with them yourself, all the while appreciating how different this is from what you are used to but understanding that these actions are normal in their country. This is not to say that the foreign country's locals are going to make you uncomfortable or disrespect you, but it is interesting to find the differences (big or small) in cultures.

I wanted to not only find these differences, but live for a couple months as a local, so that I may gain a better understanding and appreciation for other ways of thinking.

Why did you choose to join Projects Abroad in Mexico?

I specifically chose to work and study in Mexico because I one day hope to work as a surgeon in San Diego or Los Angeles. With a strong Latino population in Southern California, I feel that it is important for me to know Spanish and understand the Mexican culture, in order to better work and communicate with Mexican patients or patients from anywhere in Latin America. I grew up in a predominantly white community with little exposure to these cultures, so I knew that by going to Mexico I would have this entire world open up before me.

The medical program that Projects Abroad offers in Guadalajara was the perfect program for me and for anyone else looking to work in the medical industry who has an interest in Mexico or all of Latin America. Guadalajara is the cultural center of the country and has so much to offer, such as historical buildings, great food, beautiful music, modern hospitals, wonderful people, and a large variety of things to do in a big city.

Newborn sea turtle in Tecoman, Mexico

Releasing newborn sea turtles at the Turtle Camp in Tecoman

What was your favorite part about Guadalajara?

The size of Guadalajara can be intimidating to some people, yet I found this to be very beneficial to myself. Growing up in San Diego as well as living in Los Angeles has allowed me to become accustomed to big cities and made me very comfortable living in the second biggest city in Mexico. The fact that Guadalajara is so large made it very easy to meet a lot of people and interact with many different volunteers from Projects Abroad.

In addition, there was always something to do. For example, I went to the theater, the cinemas, played sports (mainly fútbol), spent a day at the zoo, enjoyed the restaurants and bars, and explored the many parks of the city. While most of my time was spent studying and working in the hospital, I had the chance to discover all that Guadalajara has to offer and venture to other cities in the country with my fellow volunteers.

What made you program unique?

The medical internship in Guadalajara is a great way for someone who is interested in medicine to spend time shadowing many different doctors and nurses, in order to gain experiences in the industry and possibly find what areas of medicine that interest them the most. I was able to work next to surgeons, even helping with some surgeries, and was given freedom to suture wounds and help patients on my own in the emergency room. Coming from a country where regulations control everything in hospitals, it was beneficial to work in a country where interns and students are able to receive hands-on learning by actually interacting with the patients and assisting doctors with their day to day activities.

The experiences I gained in Mexico are something that will always be with me and that will set me apart from other medical students who may not have had the hands-on learning that I was lucky enough to have acquired.

How did the local staff support you throughout your program?

The members of the Projects Abroad team went above and beyond the expectations that I had for them. Since I was paying this company to set up my living situation and work location in a foreign country, I did expect a certain amount of care and responsibility to be given by Projects Abroad. However, the incredible effort that the staff in Guadalajara put forward to make sure that I was comfortable and that I was enjoying my internship truly surprised me and pleased me.

As soon as I arrived in Guadalajara, I was picked up at the airport from a member of the Projects Abroad team and taken to my accommodation. This young man, Jonathan, was very welcoming and comforting, given that I was nervous to be away from home for such a long time. He made sure that I was comfortable and checked my room to ensure that it was up to the standards of Projects Abroad.

A couple days later, before starting my work in the hospital, I was taken out sightseeing with another staff member, Miguel. He showed me how to use the public transportation system, how to get to and from my projects location, introduced me to everyone I would be working with, and even showed me where the Projects Abroad office was located.

I never felt like I was left in the cold. The staff were in constant contact with the other volunteers and myself and organized many outings for all of us to enjoy. They made themselves available to us all hours of the day, every day of the week, and were very good about answering texts and phone calls quickly and effectively. My biggest concern about traveling to a different country was that I would not be taken care of properly, but after working with Projects Abroad, I no longer have this fear.

Projects Abroad staff with volunteer in Guadalajara, Mexico

The wonderful Projects Abroad staff of Guadalajara.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

If I were to go back in time and redo this entire experience, I would work harder to better my Spanish before leaving America. I survived living in Mexico with the little Spanish I knew and greatly improved my language skills over the two months that I was in the country, yet my life would have been easier had I known more Spanish before my departure.

The Mexican people are very patient and understanding and really appreciate foreigners making an effort to speak in the native language of the locals, but it can be frustrating when communication breaks down. Especially working in a hospital with patients that need help, I found it annoying when a task took me a long time to complete simply because I was having issues with the language. However, I never gave up and was able to accomplish anything and everything that I wanted to with the limited Spanish I understood. It can be scary when your language skills are lacking, but the important thing to remember is not to get discouraged and to never get up. It may not be pretty, but you will get your point across in the end.

What was a typical day like as a medical intern in Mexico?

A typical day for me varied depending on the hospital in which I was working. When I worked at a public hospital in the emergency room, a typical day involved me commuting by train to the hospital and arriving in the early afternoon. I would put on my scrubs and white lab coat and begin reading patient charts to see what changes had occurred with overnight patients as well as what disorders were plaguing the new patients that came in that morning. After this, I would ask if anyone needed any help and would then assist anyone that I could. If the doctors were busy, I would communicate with incoming patients and place them accordingly, with the help of a nurse who could bridge the language gap. If a patient came in with a non life-threatening wound, I would gather the necessary equipment, clean the wound, and then suture the wound (if needed) and send the patient on their way.

View of a low-income neighborhood in Mexico

Providing free medical care to a low income community - beautiful view

While working at a private hospital in the emergency room, I would show up at 8 a.m. every morning and check a schedule to see what surgeries were taking place that day. I would then choose a surgery to watch or possibly help with, depending on the type of surgery and the doctor who was performing the surgery. I tried to view a wide variety of surgeries during my short time in Mexico and so if there was something I had never seen before, I would make it a point to attend that surgery. I would then introduce myself to the surgery staff (if they did not already know me) and then ask if there was anything I could help with or if I could merely observe. Most days, I would grab equipment for the surgeons, move the lights around, and ask questions about the operation. And some days, I would be standing next to the doctor physically touching the patient and helping the head surgeon perform the operation.

What was your favorite activity outside of your normal project schedule?

My favorite activity outside of my project schedule was walking around the city with my friends or even by myself. I wanted to get all that I could out of my trip to Mexico, so I spent a lot of my time looking at the many sights the city has to offer and discovering new things to see. Often times, I would be exploring a new community that I had never been to and I would come across an old church, buried behind modern buildings, tucked away from the main street. This was incredibly exciting for me because I got the chance to see things that a tourist may not be able to see. Since I had time on my side, I had the chance to venture to places that were not considered historic or listed on tour guides, so I would wander into the churches with only a couple locals in them.

I truly enjoyed seeing the large, beautiful buildings of Guadalajara's historic center that are filled with tourists and locals selling random items. But there is a difference between this scene and the image of a tiny church, beautiful in its own way, that is rarely seen by the eyes of someone who did not grow up in the area.

In a way, the culture feels richer in the places that are less known because they are not commercialized or advertised. They are real, raw, and wonderful.

Melaque, Mexico

Spending a weekend in Melaque with Projects Abroad

What was your accommodation like?

My accommodation was very comfortable and enjoyable. I had my own room and my own bathroom, which may have been the best part. I do not mind sharing a bathroom with someone, but it was a luxury to have my own shower and toilet that was attached to my room. My host mother (who owned the house in which I lived) was very welcoming and constantly kept her kitchen stocked with any food I wanted to eat. I did much of my own cooking (because I would often work late and miss dinner and lunch) but she would always leave me leftovers and invite me to a meal when I was around. I was well taken care of where I lived and I never felt unsafe walking around the area in which I lived.

Now that you're home, how has interning abroad in Mexico impacted your life?

Now that I am back in my home country, living in Southern California, I feel like I have a better understanding of the Mexican culture. I enjoy interacting with people who speak Spanish and who come from Latin America. In addition, I can share the many experiences with people in the medical industry and inspire others to study abroad or to chase their dreams. I have gained a lot of confidence by studying in Mexico and I am now looking for another opportunity to venture to another country with Projects Abroad and experience another culture. The things I learned in Mexico will benefit me when I apply to medical schools, when I work in a hospital, when I interact with patients, and with my everyday life.