UA Pediatric Resident Volunteers in Guatemala

Dr. Marie Olson was able to help Mayan children and adults by working in the ER, assisting in deliveries of at-risk infants, working in the pediatric clinic and more.
April 9, 2013
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The department of pediatrics encourages its residents to gain valuable international medicine experience through its Pediatric Global Health program, directed by Dr. Melissa Moore, assistant professor in the section of general pediatrics.

Dr. Marie Olson examines a baby at Hospitalito Atitlán.
Dr. Marie Olson examines a baby at Hospitalito Atitlán.
Dr. Marie Olson puts a splint on a woman's broken wrist.
Dr. Marie Olson puts a splint on a woman's broken wrist.

Third-year UA College of Medicine-Tucson pediatric resident Dr. Marie Olson has a tender spot for her Latino patients.

"I find them warm, centered, trusting and engaged," says Olson. "And, I want to improve my Spanish because I love these patients."

In February, Olson traveled to Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, to volunteer her medical skills and work on her Spanish for a month at Hospitalito Atitlán.

Nestled in the Guatemalan highlands, Hospitalito Atitlán is a small hospital serving 75,000 Mayans living on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. It is the only facility offering 24/7 emergency and surgical care – with an emphasis on women and children.

The closest hospital where additional services are available is at least two hours away. "And that is by speeding ambulance," Olson says.

She speaks from experience. One day, Olson spent three terrifying hours trying to save the life of a critically ill infant boy in an ambulance as it sped through twisty mountain roads full of potholes to reach a larger hospital with more services. She supported the boy's breathing by continuously squeezing a manual resuscitation bag, while at the same time stabilizing a breathing tube that had been inserted into the boy's lung.

"Suffice it to say, I used my skills there," she says.

A pediatric resident typically wouldn't have these emergency medicine skills. But Olson isn't your typical resident. Before joining the UA department of pediatrics residency program in 2010, she was an emergency room physician for 13 years at Tucson Medical Center.

"I found I was happier working in the children's ER at TMC, but felt my knowledge base of routine pediatric care lacking, so I decided to become trained as a pediatrician," she says.

This combined expertise enabled Olson to help many Mayan children and adults. In addition to transporting critically ill patients to bigger hospitals, she worked in the ER, assisted in deliveries of at-risk infants, admitted patients with acute medical problems to the hospital, took care of hospitalized patients – including mothers and newborns –  and worked in the pediatric clinic.

International travel isn't new to Olson – last year she studied Spanish and spent time with patients with cerebral palsy in Antigua, Guatemala. She also spent part of a summer in Mexico during high school, a year in England while in college and six weeks in Japan as a medical student. "But this was my first international experience working as a doctor," she says.

Philosophical by nature, Olson believes international work gives residents valuable life lessons.

"Working in another country allows you to question your values and attitudes," she reflects. "And this experience will help residents understand what it's like to live and work in a resource-limited environment."

"It will give them an opportunity to get out of the microcosm of residency for a brief period. Residency can be intense, so taking a break from that kind of intensity and trading it for another is refreshing."

Olson already is thinking about returning to Guatemala.

"There is a need, and I have two specialties I can offer and 15 years of experience," she says.

Plus, Olson loves the country and culture of Guatemala.

"People are deeply connected to one another there – they look you directly in the eyes and their sense of interconnection is palpable. Despite their intense poverty, everyone seems happier."