Melissa Francois: The True Meaning of Pura Vida

Melissa Francois currently lives in the “Empire State,” New York. She received both her Bachelors of Science in Human Biology and Masters of Public Health from the University at Albany. In her free time she loves writing, arts & crafts, all things D-I-Y, traveling and learning new languages! She served on a Global Health team with ISL in 2015.

The summer after graduating college, I traveled to Costa Rica as a Global Health Volunteer with International Service Learning. As a pre-med student, I spent the greater part of my final semester of college vacillating between enrolling in a masters of public health program or entering the workforce before applying to medical school. For me, volunteering in Costa Rica provided me with the unique opportunity gain firsthand clinical experience while simultaneously exploring my interests in global health.

Upon landing in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose I was quickly greeted by my group leader Abdi, who was holding an ISL sign. The palm trees swayed in the breeze of the evening as my fellow team members arrived at the airport one by one. Our group included several other pre-health students and a few first-year medical students. After everyone arrived we took a quick ride to Casa de Espiritualidad Franciscana, a picturesque monastery with a lush garden full of mangoes, limes, and other fruit. The next morning the “sisters” prepared breakfast using the ripe fruit from the garden while our group spent time getting to know each other. Later on we spent time brushing up on tropical diseases like dengue, chikungunya and tinea versicolor in preparation for the start of clinic.

Nothing in my past experiences could have prepared me for my time spent in clinic in villages across Costa Rica. Volunteering at hospitals in the United States often came with many restrictions limiting the level of interaction volunteers could have with patients. I was thrilled to be able gain such hands-on experience during my time volunteering in Costa Rica.

As a group we spent the coming weeks traveling to different villages to set up triage centers, gather medical histories, take vital signs, and were even able to help conduct physical exams under the guidance of a physician! I was extremely grateful to be able to ask the attending physicians questions about treatment, plan of care, and health policy in Costa Rica in real time. My experience at clinic provided me with the invaluable experience of working with a clinical team and caring for patients in underserved communities. Outside of volunteering we were also able to experience the true meaning of ¡Pura Vida!, spending time visiting the National Park to admire the tropical landscape and snap pictures with howler monkeys, and even go zip lining. Ultimately I was able to confirm my desire to pursue medicine and deepen my interests global health, all while experiencing the rich culture of Costa Rica and making new friends.

My experience in Costa Rica provided me with unique insight into global health and helped solidify my desire to pursue graduate education in public health. As a result of my volunteer experience with International Service Learning, I was able to return to the United States equipped to relate my coursework in social and behavioral health, and health policy, to my real-world experiences in Costa Rica. International Service Learning gave me the opportunity to explore the multidisciplinary health challenges faced by global communities, and I look forward drawing upon such experiences in order improve the health outcomes of underserved and vulnerable populations around the world.

Are you interested in gaining global health experience in Costa Rica? Check out our upcoming programs here.