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Guatemala project inspires and motivates Stanford medical student

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Photo credit: 
Nicole Feldman

“Vic-TOR-ia!” Fátima cried, a grin lighting up her face. The 5-year-old had become fast friends with Stanford medical student Tori Bawel almost instantly after Bawel arrived in San Lucas Tolimán. After giving piggy-back rides to Fátima, a career in global pediatrics changed from a distant wish to a developing reality for Bawel.

Bawel is one of a few lucky medical students to travel with Stanford pediatrician Paul Wise, MD, MPH, to San Lucas Tolimán, a town in the mountains of rural Guatemala that serves as a base for his work to improve nutrition for local children. Once she completes her medical training, Bawel plans to devote her life to improving health in underserved areas.

“As an elementary school student, I was really compelled by issues of social justice,” she said. “I hope that over the course of my lifetime, I’m able to make a difference like physicians have done here in Guatemala and around the world.”

Every summer, Wise, a professor of pediatrics and a Stanford Health Policy core faculty member, takes a handful of undergraduates to the communities around San Lucas to learn about the Rural Guatemala Child Health and Nutrition Program. A collaboration between Stanford and a group of local health promoters, the program uses nutritional supplements and health education to save the lives of children under five. The students follow the promoters on house visits, help them measure the weight and height of children and gain an understanding of how the program helps the rural communities.

“We feel it is part of our educational mission,” said Wise. “We want to grow people who will make a difference, and part of that is providing them opportunities to do so.”

Bawel’s experience reinforced her desire to engage in global health work: “It’s inspired me and motivated me to want to give my life, like Wise, to… serving in areas of the world with the greatest need.”

Meeting Guatemalan students who overcame economic difficulties to study medicine — like Flor Julajuj — was also deeply moving for Bawel. Very few in rural Guatemala have the opportunity to pursue higher education or good health care. But with some help from Wise, Julajuj was able to attend medical school; just this month, she graduated from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.

“It’s been a great opportunity,” said Julajuj. “It’s changed my life.”

Most, though, are not so lucky; Bawel also encountered two young women who dream of becoming physicians but cannot afford medical school. Meeting the young, ambitious women “makes me want to empower them with the education and opportunities I have had,” said Bawel.

Wise, meanwhile, will continue to each Stanford students about ways to help these communities.

“They see the poverty, but they also begin to understand why being a great doctor or a great diplomat or a great economist will serve the interests of people down here if done well,” he said. “We want them to go back to whatever field they’re interested in, committed to gaining skills and then using them to serve the needs and the rights of people in places like San Lucas.”