A Panamanian Passage: The Ups and Downs of International Field Work

Panama – a country blessed with its geography. If there was a nation born with a silver spoon in its mouth, this was it. The isthmus is strategically located connecting North and South America. The lower saddle of the isthmus is narrow enough that the canal was engineered to bridge the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Now a focal point of globalization and commerce, this small nation is the second largest economy in Latin America, second to Chile

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The two weeks that I spent in the country was short and sweet. It was a complex swirl of emotions – of excitement, frustrations, disillusionment, and hope.  As much as I told myself I was not going to have any expectations, I unconsciously went into it with pre-formed ideas molded by years of idealized pedagogy.

Our first day was specially memorable as we met with the indigenous Embera community who lived on the protected land in the Chagres National Park. Their women were beautiful. Their men, strong. Their children, innocent and free. Their daily lives were elemental and their way of life so sustainable, mother nature would smile on them. To live off of such a magnificent piece of land, unencumbered by the toils of modernity, is one simple pleasure that most of us fail to appreciate. It is important that society not forget the communities
who were there long before the conquistadors arrived because in a world full of inequities, it is incumbent in us to be inclusive of the people who live in the fringes of society.



Our trip helped us gain indispensable experience in research and health interventions in an international community field setting at the Centro de Salud (Health Center) of the 24 de Diciembre community in Panama City. 24 de diciembre is a microcosm of the nation and this gave us a small window in to the nitty gritty of international work — the triumphs and challenges of public health in a global setting.

We were divided into three groups each with different research projects – adolescent health, nutrition and obesity in schools, and vector control. Each of the groups were tasked to : 1. develop a research question 2. design a methodology 3. create an intervention. All in a span of two weeks. No pressure there.

With the Zika epidemic on everyone’s radar since April 2015 when the outbreak in Brazil started, we in the vector control group had a lot of material to work on. As we conducted the needs assessment survey, it became apparent to us that what the people were asking for were better policies — policies that the Minesterio de Salud (Health Ministry) did not deliver, policies that we could not offer.2016-06-16.jpg


“Panama’s health minister resigned on Wednesday, the government said, amid a swine flu outbreak that has claimed 22 lives and sparked a panicked rush for vaccinations.” (Medical XPress, June 15)

Faced with restrictions in time, logistics, and resources, ideal intervention strategies to circumvent vector control problems were not at our disposal. Adding to that was the fact that we were in Panama at a precarious time – in the height of their flu season. There were long queues of people, lining up at
dawn, waiting for flu vaccines that were, unfortunately, unavailable. Clinicians and staff members were frantically tackling what the government called was a flu outbreak. Fortunately, even with such unprecedented circumstances, we were able to produce a short health education and promotion video with the collaboration of the health clinic staff, that the centro de salud can use and show in their salas or waiting rooms, and can be seen here.

International field work is rife with challenges, least of which are the differences in language and culture. My Panama experience was an instruction on adaptation on a global scale – adapting one’s objectives to the situation at hand and still be effective even when faced with numerous uncertainties.

I thank USC and my professors for this unparalleled opportunity for growth and learning!




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