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Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

OzTREKK student travels the world – Part 3

Continuing her tour of the world, future University of Sydney Master of International Public Health student Jennifer Avery takes time out to discuss the public health issues that affect Central and South America. If you’ve missed our two previous blogs about Jennifer’s travels, please check out OzTREKK student travels the world – Part 1 and Part 2.

And if you’d like to see bigger photos, just click on them!

What was your favourite location in South America and why?

Sunny day in the plaza in Quito

Sunny day in the plaza in Quito, Colombia

This is a tough one. I have to at least state our top three, which are Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Chile was our number one for many reasons. It is developed and modern yet it also has more rugged and desolate areas like the Atacama Desert and Patagonia. We loved how we could visit lush forests, shop in trendy boutique stores, bike through the world’s driest desert, and camp out beneath snow-capped mountains. I am not sure if there are many countries as geologically diverse as Chile, and with such warm people!

Your least favourite? Why?
There wasn’t a single country where we were not enjoying ourselves the entire time, but one that stands out as a not-so-pleasant experience is Bolivia. Some comical but serious advice from people prior to going there was to “eat nothing” there to avoid getting sick. Well, this was the only place on the trip that one of us was unwell—Ted had some gastrointestinal illness for about two weeks, so that put a damper on things!

“Spending so much time in South America helped me begin to witness and understand people’s day-to-day lives in so many different areas.”

Bolivia was admittedly less comfortable than other places we’d been, including Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. It was not uncommon for us to see people blatantly defecating or urinating in the streets (watch where you step!) and there was garbage everywhere. There were also a couple incidents where we were sure we were going to be robbed (not uncommon), but thankfully we dodged it in different ways.

The famous South American celebration, Carnaval, was going on while we were in La Paz, Bolivia. In many places throughout the continent this is a big celebration, but in La Paz it meant a parade one day followed by the entire city shutting down for about five days. And when I say the entire city—I mean pharmacies, tiny street stalls, restaurants—everything. It was an absolute ghost town. We had already spent more time than we wanted in La Paz, but each day we went to the bus station it was either completely empty or it was filled with employees drinking in the bus ticket sale booths (but refusing to sell any actual tickets since all the drivers were home drinking!). All that being said, Bolivia still had one of the highlights of our trip—the Uyuni salt flats. After being stuck in La Paz for days on end it was a refreshing surprise to our trip.

Carnaval in Bolivia

Carnaval dancers in Bolivia

Which was the poorest location, and what issues (health, poverty, etc.) did you notice?

Bolivia was the least developed place we visited and it begrudgingly holds the title of the poorest country in South America. This is evident by things like the number of people using the streets as a public bathroom (perhaps because most toilets you must pay for), and also the number of young children working in stores and restaurants instead of being in school. One of the sad things I remember seeing is people living in their shops—the mattresses they slept on were inside their tiny stores, their living space no bigger than 6 by 7 feet. Lack of clean drinking water is a definite issue there, and the cheapest thing to eat is always candy and junk food. Dental problems are rampant there, too, which is evident by toothless smiles, blackened teeth and for the few who could afford it, metallic veneers. I am sure there are astronomically high rates of diabetes and heart disease, but due to the poverty, I’m sure it’s hugely underdiagnosed.

Valley of the Moon

Optical illusion in the Valley of the Moon, Chile (salt flats)

How did your experiences in South America reflect your interest in public health/nursing and what did you learn?

I have always been interested in South and Central America culture and people. Parts of it are rugged and so worn down but people’s spirits are incredibly bright despite their adversities. I really want to work in places like that, which is why we spent so much time exploring the culture there. If you have any interest in public health in developing countries, I think it’s valuable to immerse yourself in it to understand it better before trying to generate solutions that may not realistically work or be well received by locals.

“…you realize how global public health efforts need to be creative, realistic and address issues at different levels.”

Spending so much time in South America helped me begin to witness and understand people’s day-to-day lives in so many different areas, all with varying socioeconomic levels. I learned a lot about how and why people make the decisions they do—especially with unhealthy food options that are definitely detrimental to one’s health. We saw firsthand how healthy greens and produce were hard to buy, but once found were always wilting, fly-ridden, and really overpriced. But shiny, colourful junk food was everywhere and unbelievably cheap! Being on a backpacking budget, we totally fell victim to this and could really understand why people make the choices they make. I gained 10 lbs just in the first month being there (I can’t imagine how I’d look if we stayed longer!).

Jennifer performing a glucometer check

Streets of South America

The day I finally found whole wheat bread, a whole two months into our trip, I squealed in excitement. There’s seemingly no encouragement to eat wisely and little affordable options to do so. It definitely sparked my interest as to how to target these kinds of problems, which are much more complicated than simply teaching someone how and what healthy foods are. The reality is the options aren’t there, but we can help work toward making them exist with different strategies. The whole experience—especially my own frustration in a lack of healthy options or clean drinking water—it all really made me interested in helping improve the situation for people.

Why do you think your travel experience is going to help you in your career in public health?

Galapagos Islands

Jen and Ted explore the Galapagos Islands

Visiting so many different countries, each with differences in culture and poverty level really showed me how we need different approaches to helping improve health in different places. No two countries are the same: even if the language and customs seem similar, there are always subtle but important differences that affect how and why people make choices that can affect their health, perception of wellness, and how they treat ailments. We experienced firsthand the lack of things like clean drinking water, toilets, soap, and nutritional food options. It just really makes you realize that in many third-world countries, health is not a conscious decision. That is something we take for granted in developed places. It really helped me see how health is a very complicated system. You can educate people all you want about making healthy food choices, but once you see firsthand that those choices are nonexistent, or truly unaffordable, you realize how global public health efforts need to be creative, realistic and address issues at different levels.

Machu Picchu

Jen and Ted atop Machu Picchu

In our travels and talking with locals, we learned about many places that have corrupt governments, which prevent money from trickling down to clinics, pharmacies, and communities. It’s something we know exists in the world, but seeing it in person made it more real, and it couldn’t be ignored. (Let’s face it: we often all turn a blind eye to many global issues.) Repeatedly, we saw huge divides in socioeconomic classes; you could drive by barren wooden shacks falling apart and then just 10 minutes up the road be whizzing past elaborate mansions. Our experiences will help me as I continue to understand the complexity of health in developing countries. It’s certainly not something I will oversimplify. There are so many components to addressing global health issues, and that is something I want to always remember in my studies and career in public health.

Jennifer performing a glucometer check

Jennifer performing a glucometer check

Tell us a bit about your medical experiences in Nicaragua.

Last year, I volunteered as a nurse for two weeks in Nicaragua with a medical volunteer trip with an organization called Friends of the Orphans Canada (FOTOCAN). Our work involved providing medical check-ups, vaccinations and health teaching to children at the orphanage. With the support and donations of hospitals and clinics, we were able to bring in lots of equipment, medications (including the vaccines that many of the children were behind on due to lack of money from the government to buy these items), eyeglasses, clothing, and much more. Fortunately, the kids at the orphanage are generally very healthy and enjoy a higher quality of life compared to those in the community as they receive food, education, and job support. For this reason, many of the children aren’t actually orphans, but are voluntarily enrolled by their families so that they can live a better life.

“I knew after this experience that I wanted to devote my career to improving global health.”

In addition to providing health care to the kids at the orphanage, the other main goal of the trip was to provide supportive care to the nearby communities, which were extremely poor. We set up mobile clinics (literally tent tarps and folding chairs) each day in remote villages and also returned to them in the second week to see follow-up patients (i.e., ones with a first-time high blood sugar or blood pressure reading). In churches or homes, we triaged and conducted hundreds and hundreds of medical exams on local people, screening them, diagnosing illnesses and infections, and prescribing medications when needed. Many of the people we saw I am certain have never even seen a doctor in their lives. Our most common diagnoses were diabetes and hypertension (one patient I saw had a blood pressure of 202/100.

Nursing duties in Nicaragua

Nursing duties in Nicaragua

A healthy adult should be around 120/80!). Some people were already aware that they had certain illnesses like diabetes or hypertension, but their local pharmacy would often not have the stock of the medication they needed. Locals and health care professionals in these communities attributed this primarily to corrupt government. Thus, another big part of our trip was bringing mass supplies of medication to help restock pharmacies and providing people with adequate amounts of the medicine they needed.

We provided other valuable services including optical check-ups, providing eyeglasses and much-needed dental care. I’ll always remember when a volunteer called me over to help because while as they were brushing a child’s teeth, they were all falling out because they were so decayed. Prior to arriving in Nicaragua, our group connected with local health care professionals and specialists who also accompanied us in our clinics. This was extremely valuable since many people required specialist services and/or follow-up care after our departure. We had a local gynecologist, optometrist, many nurses, and a dentist volunteering with us. Combined with our own group of doctors, nurses, dieticians, and many other health professionals, we were able to efficiently see huge numbers of people in a short period of time and subsequently connect them with specialists if needed.

Nursing duties in Nicaragua

Enjoying a quick nap in Nicaragua

This volunteer trip was the first type of experience I had done like this. It was humbling and fulfilling to say the least, and I knew after this experience that I wanted to devote my career to improving global health.

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Find out more about the Master of International Public Health program at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Public Health Schools Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about other public health programs at Australian universities. Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

 

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

OzTREKK student travels the world – Part 2

Thinking of travelling the world but not sure if you could really do it? Read on and be encouraged and inspired!

Sydney Public Health School

Jennifer Avery and husband Ted enjoying their adventure of a lifetime!

If you missed our previous blog posting about future University of Sydney Master of International Public Health student Jennifer Avery, please check out OzTREKK student travels the world – Part 1.

What were you most afraid of before you left on your journey?

Our biggest fears were definitely about having something bad happen to us while travelling. We were beginning our journey in Colombia, South America. We basically decided to go on this trip with the mindset that something bad will happen – always picturing the worst-case scenario of being robbed of everything we had. We are more than half-way through our journey now and came out unscathed from South America, although Ted did recently have his iPhone stolen just days after we arrived in Madrid, Spain. It happens, but it is a risk we knew existed while doing something like this.

The biggest fear is the lack of job connections we’ll have upon our arrival in Sydney. Having a major gap in employment and not being able to find a job that will help compensate for the higher cost of living there is a worry that sits in the back of our minds. Fortunately, Ted’s previous employers have all offered him to be able to work remotely immediately upon our arrival. So there is a backup plan at least!

Sleepy seal on the Galapagos Islands

Sleepy seal on the Galapagos Islands

I have been worried about transitioning in my job as a Registered Nurse, a job that varies from country to country. Every day things in my job that were once thoughtless familiarities like drug names and all the medical abbreviations used, will be totally different. Now that I’m beginning the daunting process of transferring my nursing license, I am worried about even being able to successfully transfer let alone find part-time work. My main fear though is how challenging it could be working in such a foreign environment and I hope it’s not terribly different. But we’ll see!

Did you have a travel “plan” i.e., did you have a map of where you were going and when?

Usually when we travel (for our brief two-week trips), I am planning crazy. I have each day, destination, and activities planned. For a trip like this, that was a nearly impossible task and also would constrain us more if we planned a really exact itinerary. We knew we would go through South America, then to Europe (or South Africa, pending on whichever was cheaper), then Asia where we would fly to Sydney.

Afternoon siesta

Hammocks in South America just scream “afternoon siesta!”

For the South America leg, a professor that I worked with while teaching at UOIT helped me out big time. He’s originally from Colombia and helped me string together a logical order of countries to see. So that was kind of set for us, and we followed the order but stopped in random cities on the fly. We planned as we went, taking advice from other travellers on what was good and stayed as long as we wanted in each place. The order was as follows: Colombia, Ecuador (Galapagos), Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. We were originally going to spend about two months in each continent (South America, Europe, and Asia). Shortly after arriving to South America, we learned a few things – flights are expensive there, the land distances are huge, and the buses are slow. So we changed our plans and ended up spending an incredible three months there!

For Europe, we had no order and no plans for what to see. We knew some countries that we wanted to go to, but are being purposely plan-free here. When you don’t have plans, you can take advantage of incredible flight and train deals to all kinds of destinations. Currently, our wish list is too long for this trip, but includes France, Germany, Amsterdam, Turkey, and Greece. But just the other day we saw a cheap flight to Morocco and booked it – and that wasn’t originally in our bucket list!

Penguins of Isla Magdalena in Punta Arenas

Jennifer and her husband with the penguins of Isla Magdalena in Punta Arenas

For anyone interested, we have maintained a detailed map on our website with every city we have visited, how many days we stayed, and how we departed that city to get to the next. We’re also working on constructing miniature “shoestring” city guides for major places we’ve been to – including Machu Picchu and Galapagos, which are available on our website.

Check out our next installment of Jennifers travels, when the soon-to-be Sydney International Public Health student chats with OzTREKK about travelling through South America and her medical experiences in Nicaragua! Stay tuned!

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Find out more about the Master of International Public Health program at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Public Health Schools Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about other public health programs at Australian universities. Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Friday, May 24th, 2013

OzTREKK student travels the world – Part 1

How many times have you thought, “Gee, I should have done that differently,” or “Maybe I should be more adventurous”?

Perhaps you have a case of the shoulda coulda wouldas.

Not OzTREKK student Jennifer Avery. She and her husband Ted, who works in the programming  software development field, are currently seeing the world.

Literally.

Before Jennifer begins her studies in the Master of International Public Health program at the University of Sydney, she and her husband decided to quit their jobs, sell their belongings, and tour the world. Talk about guts! Because Jennifer’s story is so remarkable, we’re going to break it down for our OzTREKK blog readers.

What was your main reason for this giant leap of faith?

We both had a strong desire to pursue something different in our lives. It is so easy to stay in the same place for a long time, doing the same things and being stuck in a routine. Once I considered the idea of exploring the world and then studying abroad, nothing else seemed exciting anymore, and it was all I wanted to do. We both felt it would be a life-changing experience. What could be more memorable than exploring so many cultures, places and new things, then beginning a new life halfway around the world?

Learn more about studying Public Health at the University of Sydney

New York airport--winter coats make good floor mats!

It sounds crazy, but I read a book that changed my life – it’s a short read and I highly recommend it. It’s called Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts. Basically, just about anyone from anywhere can travel with just a small bit of savings. Your whole life won’t fall apart—in fact so much more will stay the same than you realize. So a whole new way of thinking was opened up in my mind.

At first, the only decision made was that we would move to Australia for me to go to the University of Sydney. My husband Ted would be finishing up his master’s at the University of Toronto in December 2012. My program begins in July 2013… soon I began to see this window of time from January to July as a major travel opportunity. The real push that this was something we could really do came from Potts’ book. Some quick Googling revealed to me that lots of people around the world do this, too. It did seem a little crazy, but at the same time made perfect sense. Selling everything and owning just what was on our backs seemed like it would be a really redeeming and freeing way to start our new journey on the other side of the world!

“I had a huge desire to see as much of the world as I could.”

Ted: We really wanted to see more of the world and experience other cultures, and there is no better way to do that than to live and work in a new place. Jen’s graduate studies seemed like the perfect opportunity for experiencing a different part of the world. Moving to Australia for a year meant quitting our jobs, downsizing our possessions, and starting fresh in a new place. We soon realized that if we had to do this anyway, why not do it a bit sooner so we would have the time to travel around the world like we always dreamed of doing without any commitments?

OzTREKK student Jennifer Avery steps off the plane in Columbia

OzTREKK student Jennifer Avery steps off the plane in Columbia

Where are you headed?

We knew we would go through South America, then to Europe (or South Africa, pending on whichever was cheaper), then Asia where we would fly to Sydney.

Have you always been adventurous? Or is this “out of the norm” for you?

We’ve always been adventurous people, but never adventurous enough to break out of the comfortable North American lifestyle we had become accustomed to. We spent our last two New Years in New Zealand and Costa Rica, jetting off right after Christmas to take advantage of the extra time off, only to return to our day jobs a week and a half later. I also spent two weeks in Nicaragua on a medical volunteer trip, an eye-opening and humbling experience where I provided physical exams and vaccinations for orphans, as well as set up mobile clinics in the surrounding rural communities. But it wasn’t until now that we had the courage to make a major life change to leave our homes and pursue our dreams of seeing the rest of the world.

What was the catalyst for this huge decision?

Hiking in South America

Jennifer and Ted hiking in South America

The major catalyst for this decision was a huge thirst for new experiences—to go through something life-changing. Working in a children’s hospital made me often realize how mortal we all are. It sounds morbid, but when children would pass on, it often got me thinking about what their last thoughts were. And what would my last thoughts be? The media seems to portray that people have this sort of “film” of their lives that flashes through their head before they die. I started thinking about what mine would look like if I just stayed in the same place, working in the same job, doing the same things for the rest of my life. For some people, that is comfortable and perfectly fine. For me, that induced a huge sense of panic. I had a huge desire to see as much of the world as I could. If I am alive and well, I don’t really have a good excuse to wait until I’m old and retired to go see it! It sounds morbid, but a huge push for me has been thinking about death—which can happen to any of us at any time—and putting some serious thought into what I want to do with my life.

How did your families and employers and coworkers react, and how did you handle their reactions?

My parents did not seem surprised by the decision when I told them, truthfully. It was almost like they expected us to do something like that. Both of them were completely supportive of our decision—they trust us to be smart and safe while travelling, and I think they understood this was something I really wanted to do. Ted’s parents had an equally similar reaction, maybe a little more surprised.

As for our employers…. Well, I had been working at the same hospital for two and a half years but had somewhat recently switched departments. My boss was pretty shocked when I told her, but was supportive of the decision. I tried to keep things on the down low at work but once word got out, people were really supportive and gave a lot of encouragement for us to do that kind of thing while we’re young.

Hiking outside Bogota, Columbia

In Bogota, Columbia

“Working in a children’s hospital made me often realize how mortal we all are.”

Some of our friends and family were kind about it, but clearly a bit skeptical. We got a lot of questions like, “But you both have such good jobs! How will you return to your job after? What if you can’t find work?”, or “What about your family?” (a common one). One person even asked how we could sell all the things we got for our wedding as gifts. We told them all the same things: regarding work—we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but both our jobs are fortunately high in demand. Our families—we will miss them but keep in close touch. The more these questions were asked of us, the more we realized how fear can strap people down so much and prevent them from doing something they may really want to do!

Why did you choose Australia? (for the Master of International Public Health degree)

After realizing that I wanted to commit my career to global health issues, I began researching schools. There were not a whole lot of interesting options available for this in Toronto. I had planned to do a distance education program until one night shift, a coworker of mine told me all about a similar program she did for one year in Australia. She emphasized how important it was to do a program like that in person to connect with and learn from your classmates. Students came from all over the world, each offering unique perspectives on global issues and solutions from their home countries. That was all the convincing I needed and I began researching on all my days off. Besides the appeal of that particular program, I had always been really curious about Australia. What exactly was the deal with this sunny utopia on the other side of the world? And the people are so happy there! I have often said that every Canadian has dreamed at one point about living in Australia. That may not be 100% true, but I’d say it is a common thought that pops into the mind while we shiver through too many dull, grey months of cold misery! The idea of studying a renowned public health program in a place that gets sunshine year-round just sounded like paradise, and so it did not take a lot of convincing to get Ted, who also loathes Canadian winters, on board with the idea.

 Las Lajas cathedral in Ipiales

The beautiful Las Lajas cathedral in Ipiales near the Colombia/Ecuador border

Since OzTREKK’s last chat with Jennifer, she and her husband have travelled through South America: Columbia, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, Peru (Machu Picchu!), Bolivia, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina and Brazil. Then, to Spain, Morocco and France. Our next blog will feature Jennifer’s travels through South America and her amazing adventures—including a hike to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands! Stay tuned, OzTREKKers!

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Find out more about the Master of International Public Health program at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Public Health Schools Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about other public health programs at Australian universities. Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.