KINGSTON—Peru is a beautiful country, complete with towering mountains lost among the clouds and ancient Incan ruins nestled between them. For a group of University of Rhode Island students, however, their trip to the South American country opened their eyes to a different reality of life.
This past August, six URI graduates students, having recently passed their board of certification exam, traveled to the Peruvian city of Cusco to assist local health care provider CerviCusco in administering cervical cancer screenings. Brittaney Korpacz, a native of West Greenwich, received an education over a 10-day period in Peru much different to that in Kingston.
“It was shocking to see how different things are compared to us here in the United States,” said Korpacz. “I never realized how good we really have it until going to a developing country. Yes, there are hospitals there in Peru, but [they] are few and far between, and even if they might have access to some healthcare, how are they going to get there? They may have to walk quite a distance. “
“We are lucky here considering we can usually take a quick drive to our doctors, and if not we are lucky to be able to afford a car,” she added.
Led by Barbara Klitz, associate professor in URI’s College of Environmental and Life Sciences, Korpacz and her colleagues helped give Pap smears to local women in need, examining cervical cells under microscopes, looking for signs of the cancer. Klitz noted that, because Pap smears are so accessible in the U.S., women are diagnosed and treated quickly. The tale is different in Peru.
“Peruvian women have one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the world, [and] Cervical cancer is the leading cause of death for Peruvian women,” said Korpacz. “A clinic was created in Cusco, Peru in 2006. There is a cytotechnologist in Peru that the founder of the program and other pathologists, cytotechnologists trained for three months so that she could screen and diagnose Pap smears.”
“But only having one cytotechnologist doesn’t cut it considering how many Pap smears they get,” she added. “So we were there to help screen some of the slides.”
The challenge in providing screenings for local women at CerviCusco goes beyond personnel as much of the technology physicians have at their fingertips in the U.S. is not available in Peru. The laboratory had only one computer, for example, and the records system for frequent or past patients was disorganized and difficult to navigate.
Korpacz recalled one specific instance, however, where the work to which she had committed in Peru had a real life impact on women there.
“Everyday, this woman would come and wait at the door of our hotel to sell jewelry that her husband made,” said Korpacz. “For a few days we wouldn’t buy anything, or she was too expensive for our price range. But over time, some of my classmates bought necklaces from her.”
“One night, she actually was talking to us about the clinic and how she knows the people involved because she has breast cancer, and needs help getting treatment,” she continued. “It was sad to see considering we would see her everyday and would think nothing of it because she still comes to sell jewelry everyday in the town of Cusco. This made me realize how strong these women are even if they don’t have everything.”
Having completed her 12-month clinical internship and coursework for her Masters in Medical Laboratory Science, Korpacz will now apply for cytotechnologist positions which may become available throughout the country.
Working at CerviCusco and administering Pap smears as an official cytotechnologist for the first time, however, is an experience which has left an indelible mark on Korpacz’s life.
“I have learned that it’s a great feeling to give back and help others who are less fortunate than us,” said Korpacz. “Being there to help at the CerviCusco clinic is a reminder to keep following my dreams and being the best cytotechnologist I can be.”