Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Alex Krengel. Alex grew up in Seattle where he learned to love the outdoors and developed his taste for adventure. During college he worked as an EMT and become interested in health care, studying biology and getting a business degree with an emphasis in economics. He used his EMT training to travel on a number of medical missions, including a three-month trip to Laos and Vietnam following college graduation. Exposure to poor health outcomes in underdeveloped communities spurred Alex to get a Master’s of Public Health. He is now an operations consultant for Seattle Children’s, where he works on issues impacting children’s access to specialty care in the Northwest. His love for travel continues and he captures many of his memories through his photography.
In the back of a troop transport we bumped along a rocky mountainside road, fording four rivers that intersected our path. Outside of Santa Fe, Panama, a group of American doctors and EMTs finally reached our destination. On the only arid section of land in the middle of this lush jungle, a playfield and three concrete school houses signaled the center of a town, a spattering of huts scattered for miles under the surrounding canopy. I found myself on this adventure in this mysterious place by design, having sought a means to “help” or to “make an impact” during college. It was 2010 and my closest friends and I were to run a medical clinic for five days in the middle of—seemingly—nowhere, with the guidance of one Panamanian and two American doctors.
We set up shop, a production line churning out medical screenings. In the first morning we saw more than two hundred patients, mostly mothers and their young children. That afternoon, under the heat of the sun, the men came in from work and visited the clinic, clearly dehydrated, they complained of sore backs and chronic coughs. The next day the heat went from ninety-two to ninety-eight degrees and we scrambled to find shade for the growing procession. Unable to hide everyone from the sun, we wrapped mothers—many pregnant—and their young children around the school house, under its metal eaves. Throughout this process I engaged with many of them. Curious how far they had come, and for what, while ensuring they were feeling well.
I learned that a radio broadcast had gotten word to villages up to one hundred miles away in the weeks leading up to our arrival. Some, in broken or translated Spanish, reported traveling for an entire week on bare feet to find us and see their first ever doctor. This was a shocking revelation to me—that a lack of access to medical care could span not just swaths of sparsely populated land, but generations. In my quest to find purpose, I had chosen to sacrifice my time to provide for others something I had thought to be of value. And clearly the group of us was doing just that.
I kept on with this belief until day three, when one native woman, sapped from seven unimaginable days walking under the sun, presented her fainting infant to us. I immediately scoured the village for a minister and gathered with the doctors to pray for and nourish this mother and her child. In the following moments, which I remember vividly, I saw the fear and anguish that crept through her.
There was no shared language to communicate, but the rituals of prayer and healing that were administered soothed these fears. In one instant, there was a deep human connection forged over the life of a child, our cultural differences disintegrating to deal with what mattered most. This was juxtaposed by the current of thought that our engagement with this community as “helpers,” had actually led to the predicament we found ourselves in. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a doctor, the help we had brought, had caused something potentially devastating.
I began traveling as a way to challenge my understanding of the world. As a seventeen year-old, I ventured with a group of classmates to Ollantaytambo, Peru. In the middle of the Valle Sagrado we made our way around town, getting to know some of the locals. It was hard at the outset, my first time out of the country, nothing in common with my new neighbors but a second language — Spanish (Quechua is the primary language in much of the Andes). But, immersed in their culture, we learned an immense amount about their rich history. I remember speaking with the old owner of a new pizza parlor who had spent the first three-quarters of his life as a farmer but recently opened this restaurant to cater to the growing tourism coming into their small town. My friend and I, infatuated with the kitchen staff, became obsessed with the food and competed over who could eat the hotter ají (in an insurmountable feat, he also managed to put down 13 banana pancakes one morning).
While we continued to immerse ourselves, we debriefed over the contrasts of our lives to theirs. The local economy and history, belief systems, life opportunities, technology… the list grew and grew as we went around one-by-one describing the obvious things that didn’t seem like home to each of us.
What struck me the most was the basic desire to enjoy life, to make friends, to have a family, to be somebody. It was easy to point to the differences in amenities or language, but what I found striking were the similarities that I was able to draw between myself and these people I was meeting. It was because of these similarities that this trip became worthwhile. I learned to widen and pivot my perspective, to deepen my empathy and experience the differences between not dissimilar people, but similar people living different lives.
Because of this trip to Peru I sought many more. To taste the food, to see the sights, but mostly to experience the culture. To me, the essence of a culture is distilled in the way its people are motivated to achieve their goals and confront life’s challenges. I see every trip as an opportunity to learn a lesson, to reflect on my life with a different perspective and to take those lessons with me when I return home. In Laos, a man who shared my name and age told his story to me and a thousand other people about losing both of his legs to unexploded ordnance dropped on his farm before his birth, during the Vietnam War. Realizing it was a matter of luck that I could have been him instead of myself, I was touched by his tenor and motivation in the face of his experience. I was reminded of the preciousness of each of our lives and, much like my experience in Panama, how our decisions to act can have both positive and negative consequences. I have come to appreciate travel as an opportunity to learn and share, not to help.
I have learned through travel that it is only through exposing myself to great difference that I learned to find comfort in the existence of similarities I share with others. I have little doubt in my mind that it is only because of my early experiences traveling that I have become the person I am today, interested in making a difference by learning about people and the issues their communities face in living healthy lives. As a result, I’ve achieved degrees in biology, business and public health and I spend my weeks finding ways to improve access to healthcare for children in the Northwest.