Narrative of a Costa Rica Medical Adventure

by Rebecca Theophanous

Pitt’s summer term lasts for four whole months. If you haven’t started thinking about what you are going to do with your time off, then take a quick break from classes, clear your mind for a few minutes, and start now! International pre-health opportunities are a great choice for getting early clinical exposure, learning about global health, and most importantly having fun. The experience is unique, gives you much to say in medical school applications, and offers you an opportunity to try something new. If you need convincing or don’t know where to start, here’s my story.

Sitting on the beach, eyes closed, ice cold drink in my hand…I could feel the soft sand beneath my toes and the sun’s bright rays warming my skin. I could hear the waves slowing ebbing, softly touching the edge of the sand before returning back to the deep blue. I could smell the salt in the air, hear the monkeys swinging in the trees behind me, and... wait a minute! Isn’t this supposed to be a pre-professional health article? Although the beach does seem appealing as Pittsburgh’s snow forecasts are certainly looming, what does this have to do with medical school or medicine for that matter?

When I entered the University of Pittsburgh as a pre-medical student three years ago, I remember being handed a thick pamphlet describing what steps I would need to take in order to reach that elusive place called medical school. Skimming the pages, I noticed information on required coursework, GPA expectations, volunteering, research, getting to know your professors, and other mind-boggling material that told me I was signing away my life for the next decade. I read nothing about studying abroad, traveling the world, or getting to know a new culture. Yet, I was fortunate enough to find the right opportunity, the time to do something unique, and thereby experience something that I never had imagined was possible.

This past summer, I spent five weeks in San José, Costa Rica on the Medical Spanish and Health Care in Costa Rica program with International Studies Abroad (ISA). It was an amazing experience because I had the opportunity to combine my language interests as a Spanish major with my medical interests as a neuroscience major.

On the weekdays, I had my Medical Spanish class every morning, which was taught completely in Spanish. I learned medical terms, practiced taking vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rate, learned about common diseases such as gastric cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and studied different aspects of medicine including traditional and holistic medicine. We were expected to give presentations and talks for every topic that we studied, such as a talk to the public on diabetes, a talk to adolescents on contraceptives, and a talk to students about a body system (naturally, I chose to present on the nervous system).

One of my favorite parts of the course was, believe it or not, the midterm and final exams! For our exams, we were expected to interact with simulated patients, perform a physical exam, take vital signs, ask about medical history and the reason for the visit, and then finally order the right lab exams if necessary and diagnose the person – all in Spanish. Even better than that, after passing our exam, the advanced students had the opportunity to act out the part of simulated patient for the beginner and intermediate classes. Although on the first day I was a little frightened by the description of our exams on the syllabus, by the end it was an enjoyable and invaluable learning experience.

My second course was held in the evenings two days a week. It covered a combination of the Costa Rican health care system and tropical medicine in general, this time taught in English. I really enjoyed this course because it gave me a new perspective on medicine while learning about important modern day issues with healthcare and global disease.

After studying the history of Costa Rica’s health care system, we made comparisons to the current and future systems of United States healthcare, as well as other European countries such as France and the U.K. The tropical medicine portion of the course discussed a variety of global tropical diseases, some of which are present in Costa Rica today. We learned about parasitic infections, dengue fever, malaria, tuberculosis, worm diseases, HIV/AIDS, Lyme disease, and many others.

To supplement this class, we went on several field trips (the best part of any excellent education) to solidify some of the material that we had learned in both the healthcare and tropical medicine portions of the course. We visited a few local EBAIS (Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral de Salud), which represent the smallest and lowest-tier health centers of the public healthcare system, as well as Hospital Clínica Bíblica, a large private hospital in San José. In regards to tropical medicine, we visited the Clodomiro Picado Institute, one of the world’s leading snake antivenom institutes, as well as the snake farm El Mundo de los Serpientes (World of Snakes) where we saw about fifty different kinds of snakes. We even had the opportunity to remove a few snakes from their cages and have a hands on experience with the guide’s supervision. Finally, we toured the National Biodiversity Institute (INBIO Park), where we were surrounded by Costa Rica’s immense biodiversity while walking through rainforest trails, butterfly gardens, medicinal plant farms, mushroom land - you name it, we saw it!

This article describes only a small sample of my experience in Costa Rica, but I hope that it is enough to convince other pre-medical students to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad at least once during their undergraduate career. For any readers who are thinking, “I do not know any Spanish or other languages, there is no way I’ll be able to survive in another country” the ISA program I selected had beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels into which students would test. Some people came to the country not knowing a word of Spanish, and they did much more than survive (did I mention white-sand beaches, volcanoes, and waterfalls on weekend excursions?).

Looking back on my experiences studying abroad, my travels have made me grow both personally and intellectually. From my countless memories and stories, I have no doubt that I made the right decision to go. I have learned that there is no better way to experience life than to put yourself in the unknown and try something completely new. You can, too!