Interns at Work: Victoria Blackstone '15 Intern at La Fundación Peruana de Cáncer in Lima, Peru
It was two weeks into my internship, and the children at the cancer home wanted to hear "la gringa" sing her favorite song. I agreed, but only on the condition that they would sing me their favorite song in return. After they had all promised, I sang them "I and Love and You" by the Avett Brothers. Once I had finished, of course, none of them really wanted to fulfill their promise. Finally, sheepishly, 17-yr-old Carlos, receiving treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia, sang:
Todo va a estar bien, (Everything will be ok)
Todo va a estar bien, (Everything will be ok,)
Pase lo que pase (Come what may,)
Sé que todo va a estar bien (Everything will be ok)
All of the children laughed at him for this. I could not see why; I thought it was a beautiful little song. It was not until later that I found out that this was the chorus of a cheesy jingle for a car insurance company in Lima. The message of hope touched me, especially since Carlos had been having a particularly difficult battle with the quimioterapia.
It was these unexpected moments that defined my internship at El Albergue "Frieda Heller," a shelter for cancer patients in Lima, Peru. When I designed my internship the winter beforehand, I thought I had every detail squared away. Sisters from Pro Exclesia Sancta, a religious order centered in Lima that works with my church back home, mentioned that members of their order were the primary caregivers at a cancer shelter in Lima. With a little research, I discovered El Albergue "Frieda Heller," a shelter for cancer patients who needed to travel to Lima for treatment but could not afford lodging. It was run by a joint effort between La Fundacion Peruana de Cancer (the Peruvian Cancer Foundation) and Pro Excelsia Sancta.
It was too perfect of an opportunity not to seize. I was a Spanish major, following the pre-medicine track, and three months spent working with cancer patients in South America was the ideal opportunity to both gain medical experience and practice my Spanish. What's more, I received the support of the Erik T. Woolley Fellowship, a fellowship given to Washington and Lee students pursuing internships abroad. This enabled me to design the internship best for me and my studies.
The minute I landed in Lima, however, I knew that although I thought I had planned every detail, there were so many things I never could have planned. First of all, I never could have imagined how incredible Peru was. It was the first time I had ever travelled out of the United State. Lima is a fascinating city, the perfect mix of the baroque and the modern, the sacred and the secular. I wandered the streets, amazed by the Chifa restaurants nestled in gigantic classical architecture, and the open street market just across the street from Wong's (the Peruvian equivalent to Walmart).
The main surprises, however, came from my work at El Albergue "Frieda Heller." First of all, the sisters of Pro Exclesia Sancta lived in a house attached to the shelter. I was basically living with the patients, which formed the tight sense of community that is so important to Peruvian Culture. I felt like a family member, spending almost all my time with them.
Another surprise came from my experiences accompanying patients to Neoplasticas, the cancer hospital in Lima. There are only three cancer hospitals in Peru, and the only one that treats all forms of cancer is in Lima. Many of the people cannot even afford to get to Lima, let alone find a place to live while they are receiving treatment. There were people living in the grass, in the parking lot, in the hallways. I had never seen so much poverty with so many people.
The main thing that I had not imagined was that, of the 60 patients, about a third of them were children. They were the greatest joy and greatest difficulty with working at the cancer home. They livened up my responsibilities of paperwork, serving food, assisting with check-ups and accompanying patients to appointments and chemotherapy. I would play board games with them, help them with their homework, sing with them, and dance with them during processions like El Sargrado Corazon de Jesus.
As you can imagine, it was also the hardest to watch them struggling with treatment. But from them came a strong sense of hope, as can be seen with Carlos. I found that this hope, for me, comes from directly working and interacting with people (which is why I decided to pursue psychology) and will be a perspective I carry with me in both the Washington and Lee community and as I pursue a career later in life.