Improving Health in Panama

Originally published October 4, 2016

By Lizette Gutierrez

Senior, Biological Sciences

Our world is composed of a plethora of intricate puzzle pieces that differ in size, shape, color and origin. This Earth, without differences like these, is no world at all. I have come to find, through experiences, that the Mother Earth we tread on has a simple beauty for all to capture.

Lizette Gutierrez took part in a seven-week research project detecting the Parechovirus in Panama. Photo courtesy of Lizette Gutierrez
Lizette Gutierrez took part in a seven-week research project detecting the Parechovirus in Panama.
Photo courtesy of Lizette Gutierrez

This summer, I set foot on Panamanian soil wondering what impact this journey would have on the rest of my professional and personal life. I knew I was going to take part in a seven-week research project to detect Parechovirus for the first time in Panama. However, I was not cognizant of the irreplaceable interactions that would be established in this country.

When trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle, you do not look at the final product and attempt to figure out which piece goes where. Instead, you begin to piece together clumps of puzzle pieces, concentrating on and appreciating the details of each piece. Much like the formation of a puzzle, this journey allowed me to look deeper into social determinants of health in Panama. We utilized our time in our laboratory to learn about the illnesses prevalent and unique to the Republic of Panama, and we also took the time to educate colleagues about healthy habits such as drinking more water, eating fresh produce and exercise.

Not only did this research internship provide me with a demanding project, but we engaged in cultural activities/excursions that stimulated our mind and senses. From visiting the indigenous population Emberá, to planting trees in a gardening land in Veraguas, to hiking La India Dormida, to visiting the picturesque islands of San Blas, I suddenly began to fathom the austere grandeur of this diverse country.

This was a very eventful and challenging experience. Not only was I involved in a very unique Hispanic health disparities research project that identified the prevalence of Parechovirus in Panamanian children, but I was observant of the cultural immersion that was taking place as we treaded these Panamanian lands day by day. Through conversations, a new lens was placed at my sight to understand the people, the food, the daily lifestyles and the methodology research institutions and public health services are utilizing diligently to improve health. This journey was extremely important for me because it gave me an even greater desire to submerge myself in other countries in the near future. The connection and attachment I have for Panama has grown since the start of this research program, and I felt that this summer internship encompassed a combination of self-awareness, cultural immersion, research and life lessons that I will never forget.

After this Minority Health International Research Training (MHIRT) 2016 journey in Panama, it is my duty to continue the challenge. The road does not abruptly come to an end. Although there are a myriad of puzzle pieces left to be united, I am determined to become part of a cohort of professionals who contribute to the prosperity of future generations.

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