Ambassador Spotlight : Matt Karr

FIMRC Ambassador Matt Karr has focused his efforts both in our offices in Philadelphia and currently at our site at Project Huancayo, Peru. Matt is working on a Diabetes campaign in a rural community outside of Huancayo to help diabetics manage the disease and to also help others prevent it. Below, you will find an interview with FIMRC Ambassador Matt Karr!

Why did you choose to do an intern experience with FIMRC?

During my undergraduate years at Emory, I was the president of Emory’s FIMRC chapter during my junior year, and during my tenure I led a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  I thoroughly enjoyed that experience and was extremely impressed with the quality of FIMRC’s organization.  When I decided to take a gap year, my main goals were to improve my mastery of Spanish, gain more clinical exposure, and help improve the lives of others; FIMRC’s fellowship program was the perfect fit for me. 

How do you think a hybrid internship is beneficial to your work on site in Huancayo?

 My “hybrid” internship consisted of spending August-January in our headquarters  in Philadelphia, and then February-June at our project site in Huancayo.  I definitely think it helped prepare me for my time here in Peru.  While at our headquarters, I regularly corresponded via Skype with our Field Operations Manager in Peru, Danel Trisi, to help strategically plan for my time here. We devised a set of criteria by which we could evaluate future projects, and this allowed us to target specific areas to focus on upon my arrival.  Additionally, I prepared briefing documents that we now send to our volunteers pre-departure regarding the national and regional healthcare priorities in Peru.  By the time I arrived in Huancayo, this preparation allowed me to hit the ground running.

What did you see in the community that made you want to create a Diabetes campaign in Huancayo?

The diabetes group that I am currently overseeing  takes place an hour outside of Huancayo in a small rural community called Aco.  There are a couple of reasons why I decided to create this group: first, their diet is shockingly poor.  Almost every meal (even breakfast) involves rice and potatoes, and these two foods are extremely high on the glycemic index.  When rounding in the hospital, the majority of the patients’ complaints are GI in nature, and I frequently  encounter a patient waiting for a gallbladder removal.  As a doctor once joked to me here, Peruvians have “flacos exteriores, pero gorditos adentros”, which translates into “skinny on the outside, and fat on the inside.”  The second reason I chose to run the diabetic group is because of the lack of health education and resources available, particularly in the isolated community of Aco.  They have a health post in Aco with extremely scant resources.  Many of the people in the community have diabetes, but are completely unaware.  We recently ran a diabetes campaign, where a group consisting of myself, our volunteers, and Peruvian medical students measured blood pressure, blood sugar, height, weight, and waist circumference to screen for diabetics for my program.  Two of the six diabetics we diagnosed (out of 25 people) had astronomically high blood sugar levels (over 500!).  It was evident to me that this community needed assistance.

What steps did you take before the project to ensure the projects success?

The diabetes group simply would not have been possible without collaboration.  First, Jessica Southern, our FOM in Nicaragua, sent us the curriculum she created for a similar diabetes group she runs at her site, which has proved to be invaluable to us as we launch our program here in Aco.  Additionally, we wanted to establish a synergistic relationship with not only the health post in Aco, but also the municipality, and both the mayor and Dr. Andrea Cosme have been extremely supportive of our efforts.  In particular, Dr. Cosme has been of tremendous assistance; when we presented our diabetics group to the municipality, she helped us prepare, and through her own presentation to the municipality she highlighted strategies to establish general wellness in the community. This perspective was eye-opening, as it helped me learn what the local leadership prioritized as areas that needed improvement.  Additionally, Dr. Cosme publicized the diabetes program within the community of Aco (this has proven to be difficult, as many do not have phones), and we now meet weekly to discuss the current week’s lesson plan.

What are you doing to make sure that the program will be a success after you leave Huancayo? 

Sustainability was one of my chief concerns when designing our diabetes program in Aco; too often, NGO’s will stage a one-time intervention and then things return to the norm.  To combat this problem, we took a two-pronged approach:  first, we wanted to collaborate closely with the health post (essentially a primary care facility with limited resources), and even invited their collaboration in lesson planning and administration of the lessons.  This way, once I return to the United States, the local population has the resources to continue the program for new groups.  Second, we aim to empower the diabetics in the group to take ownership of their group, and ultimately  of their disease.  If the participants take the initiative to continue meeting and holding each other accountable, then we will know that we have created a sustainable program.

How do you think this experience will help you in your future career in the medical field?

My experience in Huancayo will prove to be a tremendous help to my future career in the medical field.  My ability to speak Spanish has rapidly improved since I have been here, but particularly so in a medical setting.  Additionally, my experiences here, especially with the diabetes group, have strengthened my ability to work in a team environment with people who have backgrounds quite different from mine.  My experiences in Huancayo have made me more adaptable, as I have had to accustom myself to life in an unfamiliar culture, and have also had to improvise at times. I have become far more comfortable in a clinical setting, as I regularly scrub into surgery and round at the hospital.  I have observed procedures as remarkable as craniotomies, gallbladder resections, and Caesareans, and witnessed patients with tuberculosis, Legionnaire’s Disease, and meningitis.  Finally, my time here has improved my ability as a leader.  With the assistance of Danel, I am in charge of FIMRC’s diabetes group, and along with our other ambassador Mitchell Yeary, I design and administer medical English lessons for both Peruvian medical students and doctors.

What is the funniest thing that's happened on site?

For me, the funniest thing has been how literally every Peruvian thinks I look like a famous celebrity, largely because I am one of the only “gringos” in Huancayo.  Some common names that I am often likened to are Chris Martin, Calvin Harris, and Mark Zuckerberg.  One of Carlos’ (my host) friends even juxtaposed a picture of Mark and I next to each other to make her point!

What is the biggest challenge you've faced on site?

The biggest challenge that I have faced thus far is adjusting to certain cultural aspects of life in Peru.  For example, we always joke about how things here run on “Huancayo time”; instead of meetings at set times, they are more like rough estimations, as people here are chronically late.  When I presented my diabetes group to the municipality of Aco, we were scheduled to present at 9:30 a.m., yet did not begin until 11:15 a.m.!

Posted on March 25, 2015 and filed under Internship Program, Internship, Peru, Project Peru, Huancayo.