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Costa Rica trip teaches medical, life lessons

An amazing journey to Costa Rica has taught April Asleson both about the medical field and not taking things for granted.

The 2004 Detroit Lakes High School graduate is a student at St. Cloud State University and traveled to Costa Rica May 19-28 with seven other St. Cloud students through the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children program. An experience, she said, she'll never forget and hopes to repeat in the future.

"It was amazing. Everything there is complete opposite of how it is here. Like the people are just so warm and loving," she said. "I don't know how to describe it -- it's more than words."

Through the Medical Professionals Association club at St. Cloud, Asleson has volunteered with Relay for Life and other health related organizations. Although not affiliated with the school or MPA, she found the FIMRC organization online and booked the trip to Costa Rica.

The organization set up the host families and where she and the other volunteers from St. Cloud would stay and work.

"She lived with her father, her mother and her daughter, but they also shared a courtyard with their entire family, so there was always like 40 people running through the house," she described. "You never know what's going on, and you can't understand half of them, you just sit there with your English-Spanish dictionary and figure it out."

Not being fluent in Spanish, she said the language barrier was difficult.

"It was hard at times, especially being from Minnesota, we have the worst vowels in the world. We'd try and speak Spanish and sound even worse," she said with a laugh.

Each day, Asleson and the rest of the crew would get up around 7 a.m. and ride 20 minutes in a van from Santa Ana to Alajuelita, where the clinic was located. They worked in the clinic from 9 a.m. to noon and could only see 15 patients per day.

"The clinic there wasn't anything like a clinic here. It wasn't sanitary or very strict rules. There just aren't any rules."

The clinic they volunteered at is a free clinic, and the village people would come and wait in line for hours simply for diapers, shampoo, soap or a Tylenol.

"Simple things they don't have."

In the clinic, she got to shadow the doctor -- Dr. Christian Elizondo, who has lived in Costa Rico all of his life -- work in admissions, checking people for height and weight and finding their files. She worked in the medicine room to chart and translate prescriptions, find them, and then put the pills in a Zip-Lock bag. They were also responsible for giving out instructions to the people -- both on the bag and explaining verbally.

"You need to be very, very clear and make sure they understand what you're telling them about the medication. I guess there have been instances where children will come in with ear infections and they'll give them pills and then they'll come back and they have shoved all the pills up into their ear canal."

The ear hurts, that must be where the pill goes.

"They don't wait for one person to get sick, they wait for everyone in their family to get sick because it's such a journey for them. They'd rather take everybody at once rather than just have one of them seen."

At the clinic she also tested blood for anemia and for parasites. They saw a case of the chicken pox and a young girl with an eating disorder.

Some kids didn't even have anything wrong with them, they just wanted to interact with others and reap the benefits of the clinic.

"Apparently a lot of the kids there make up that they're sick so their parents will bring them to the clinic because there's color crayons and stickers and other kids to play with and they don't have those things so they want to go there just to play with them."

Clinic hours were every morning and then in the afternoons Asleson and the other students held activities for the kids. Drugs are a problem in that area, and they taught kids about other activities they could do to stay away from drugs.

"I was standing outside one day during the rain and we saw a man walking down a river. He came back with a toilet on his back. I was like 'what is he doing?' The doctor told me that what they do is find junk and sell it to people and they can buy a gram of cocaine or crack or something like that for a dollar. So they pawn off all this stuff to buy drugs."

They taught the kids how to report drug use and exercises and sports they can do to keep away from drugs. They also did skits, and even though the kids couldn't understand them, it was their favorite part.

This took place at a soup kitchen that used to host 300 kids a day, and is now down to 60-70 kids. The lady who runs it is worried about what's happening to those kids.

When Asleson walked up the hills of San Jose, she and the others could see what was called the Ring of Poverty, where Nicaraguan refuges lived in poverty. Those were the patients they saw during their time in Costa Rica.

"Their houses were nothing more than sheet metal pressed up against each other and dirt floors. The children would be playing with empty water bottles. It was like their only toy. And there's millions and millions of dogs running around everywhere and everyone has at least five kids."

The doctor explained to them that women would have children to have happiness in life because everything else was so negative and impoverished.

The nearest water was three hours away from the village, so people would get up at 3 a.m. to walk to the water and haul it back. And it wasn't even what is considered clean water here.

Asleson said she would love to do this kind of trip again in the future, and even go back to the same clinic some time.

"It's scary and the atmosphere is different than here, but it's definitely something that puts you into perspective. You can't just walk into your bathroom when you have a headache and you open up a Tylenol. You have to walk three miles, wait for two hours and maybe you'll get seen by a doctor.

"We have things way too easy here."

After one more semester, Asleson will have her bachelor's degree in biomedical science. From there, she's not certain if she'll go to med school or graduate school --that's something she still has time to think about, she said with a laugh.