Thursday, December 3, 2009

learning to breathe again

It could be interpreted many different ways. But UAC-CP Nursing graduate Agustin Apaza chooses to see how his life has been filled with fresh starts and new opportunities. His brilliant smile and bubbly persona are the result of having a positive outlook on life, he told me when I sincerely questioned how he never seems to let difficulties get him down. "Imagine if I'd lived my whole life feeling sorry for myself," he posed. "Do you think I would have ever been able to achieve anything? No!"

An orphan who was found abandoned in a plaza in La Paz as a baby, Agustin grew up in a system of public and private orphanages--always longing for the mom he never knew, often feeling alone and forgotten and discriminated against. And then, as a child, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart defect. He spent more than 10 years in and out of hospitals before a Rotary Club in La Paz (#4690) made it possible for him to travel to the U.S. for surgery.

Going into the surgery, Agustin (15-years-old at the time) knew that if it wasn't successful "they wouldn't be able to do anything more to save me." Death was at the door, but Agustin emerged anew. "It felt...kind of weird...because basically, I was reborn," he explained. "I had to learn to walk all over again. Because I had no strength in the beginning, I even had to learn how to breathe again."

In some ways, Agustin said, it was the same for when he arrived to study here in Carmen Pampa. Released into the world as a young man without any type of resources and unable to afford the cost of college anywhere else, he came to the UAC-CP on a scholarship. And it took some adjusting to get used to living life in the countryside, but it was at the UAC-CP where he was once again given a new chance at life.

Having grown up in hospitals, the College's Nursing program was the last thing he wanted to be a part of. "I was treated so poorly by nurses for most of my life," he explained. "I told myself, 'I am never going to study nursing. One, because it's just a dirty job and also because the medical staff were so mean. Plus, I knew the cost of studying would be too expensive." But through a series of events that he believes are more than mere coincidences, he ended up studying Nursing. "Now look!" he smiled, noting the irony. "The thing I wanted least of all for my life, that's what God chose for me!"

"Nursing is about service; it's to help the people that need--that's how it helped save me. And God changed me so that I could go on helping others. I was a very, very sick person for most of my life..and in a bizarre way, I believe that is what saved me." His illness, he said, is what has made him a more dedicated professional--he understands that it also has a very emotional and human aspect.

At the same time, he feels that the UAC-CP has technically prepared him for his professional work, too. "The principle thing for our Nursing Department at the College is the promotion of health and prevention of disease in the rural area--that's why we have the major here. We are all prepared to work in the rural area, we have the experience," he said. "Each semester we leave and do practices in hospitals and clinics throughout the Department. And what we see and experience is that we have the power to give back and make change and spark development in the rural area."

"I think each of us in life has a mission," Agustin told me after I asked him to talk about his understanding of the College's mission. "And this is my mission--to reduce the pain and suffering for people." Which, he admits, is easier said than done. "For me, working in the rural area is the saddest part. Partly because we see people who have been forgotten by our government, people not well taken care of, people who don't have basic services, and people that are very far from health services."

"Truthfully," Agustin said, "it's painful because you see people in need and you feel helpless because you don't have the necessary supplies to improve the situation. How beautiful it would be to have equipment and medicines and such to be able to attend to their needs. But considering the reality, you know the person is sick and often you can't do anything."

"Public health is very sad," Agustin said after recalling a couple particular incidences of visiting the homes of poor, farming families. "But it also gives you much joy. Sometimes you make a house visit and attend to a patient and feel like you've really made a difference--you do it, you cure them. And then days or weeks after that, the family will come to the hospital or clinic and say, "Thank you." It's the best gift for those of us who work in public health--it's not, 'Here, take my chicken,' or 'Here, I brought you fruit.' No. Not for me. For me, it's that they say, 'Gracias,' and smile and that's sufficient. With a smile and a thank you, you feel so satisfied. It always makes me happy because I know I did my job and I completed my personal mission."

When I reminded Agustin that he also completed his mission of graduating from college, he flashed me his giant trademark smile. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it!" he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I am so happy to have finished. And so, so proud that I finished at the Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa. So proud."

"That is what I hope for--for people to always take the spirit of the UAC-Carmen Pampa with them in the work they do, to be proud of who we are and what we accomplish for the poor and marginalized. ...Wherever I go in this world, I am always going to say that I am from Carmen Pampa. Always. Always."

Agustin officially graduated from the UAC-CP in September. He is currently employed by Medicus Mundi and works on a Chagas disease project in the rural area around Tupiza, Bolivia.

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