CAMTA member hugging and smiling with a patient

Changing Lives – a Young Volunteer’s Story

Andy Wensel in Ecuador

As soon as I heard the people lining the hallways clapping their hands, I knew I was in for the experience of a lifetime. Hearing a hospital full of patients – waiting for us – applaud on our arrival was something I had never expected. I honestly had to make an effort not to faint right then and there.

With that moment began the rollercoaster of emotions that did not end until after my return home from Ecuador. Even weeks after the final operation, I still had difficulty processing the enormity of what I had experienced.

As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to travel to some far away land to help people who truly need it. More than that, I had a desire to experience new cultures and languages while learning everything I could from the people there. So when I was invited to join CAMTA I could not believe it. I was literally jumping around my kitchen full of excitement because it really was a dream come true.

The months leading up to the trip were some of the most nervous and exciting I have ever experienced. Would my Spanish be sufficient? Would I live up to expectations? And what were the expectations anyway?  I was a nervous wreck. But most of all I kept thinking, “this is what you have been waiting for, so just go and do what you can.”  So I did.

The experience challenged me in every way possible, most obviously with my Spanish, but also just interacting with the other members of CAMTA. It is not easy coming into a group of professionals as a student and trying to act like a peer. It is incredibly intimidating at first, but it forces you to come out of your shell, which is a huge lesson in itself.

Everyone made that transition easy for me and before long I was in the operating room trying my best to be part of the team. The lessons I learned in there are far too many to even comprehend, but I came away with a true perspective and respect for what operating room doctors and nurses do. I now have an appreciation for the amount of creativity and problem solving that goes on in surgery, which I guess I had not realized before. I don’t know if I was expecting cookie-cutter surgeries, but the uniqueness and ingenuity displayed with every case struck me and really appealed to me.  

And then there were the patients. Where can I even start? Their warmth and courage touched me in a way that I still cannot quite figure out. Through their graciousness and incredible stories, I finally came to understand what the human spirit is. They made me want that spirit in my life; they made me want to become a better person. I still cannot get over the fact that they were the ones thanking me, when I feel so indebted to each of them. For me they are, as they would say, “los angeles de Dios”.

Now, reflecting back on the week long blur, I cannot help but think the floodgates have been opened. This really has always been my dream and now having had a taste of it, I want more. I am more determined than ever to perfect my Spanish, get into medical school and meet the people of the world, hopefully in a manner as meaningful as this experience has been.

So thank you CAMTA. You will never know the difference you have made in the lives of the patients – and in my life too.

Andy Wensel was a student translator for a CAMTA mission. She returned to Ecuador the following year with even stronger Spanish skills.  Subsequently Andy entered medicine at the University of Alberta.