Five UCLA medical students flew to Peru shortly before graduation to complete a clinical rotation at a hospital in Iquitos. Surrounded by the Amazon jungle, it’s the world’s largest city that’s unreachable by road.

After four years of working with the latest technology and state-of-the-art treatments, the students found their interaction with patients, who sometimes traveled weeks on the Amazon River by boat from remote villages, a life-changing experience.

Organized by the global health program in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the three-week training, which was captured by NBC News, immersed the budding doctors in an entirely new culture and health care system. The tightknit group included Alexandra “A.J.” Greene, Aleksandr Gorin, Nahda Harati, Molly Sprague and Diana Partida.

Limited access to the equipment and medications that the students took for granted at UCLA forced them to trust their instincts and depend on the new skills they acquired.

“I learned to rely on my diagnostic findings from physical examinations, and how to make decisions in clinical settings where resources are not readily available,” said Partida, who added that what she learned in Peru will make her a better doctor in “countless” ways. “The experience taught me to recognize my emotional resilience and to have confidence in the training I received at UCLA.”

The students encountered tropical diseases, an unfamiliar Spanish dialect and prickly gender dynamics in a hospital culture where female physicians are a rare sight.

“Working in the infectious diseases unit of the hospital allowed me to meet patients with malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis,” said Gorin. “The opportunity to see tropical parasites under the microscope and learn how they are diagnosed was an experience I won’t soon forget.”

Co-founded in 2010 by Dr. Lee Miller, director of clinical rotations and the medical school’s associate dean for student affairs, the global health program offers research opportunities abroad after the first year of medical school and clinical rotations for senior medical students.

“Our students gain a priceless dose of perspective,” said Miller, who is a professor of pediatrics. “They return with a deeper understanding of health care disparities, richer cultural sensitivity and a greater commitment to addressing inequities in their own backyards.”

Designed with UCLA’s medical partners in China, India, Malawi, Mozambique, Peru, South Africa and Thailand, the global health program is enormously popular. This year alone, almost one-third of the graduating class flew overseas to learn from host medical teams how physicians practice in that country.

According to medical school dean Dr. Kelsey Martin, the program has a dual focus: developing sustainable health care programs in low-income countries while delivering a transformative learning experience to UCLA medical students.

“Our program embeds students in settings in which UCLA has established larger partnerships for capacity building, clinical care and research,” said Martin, who accompanied Miller and the students to Peru.

Perhaps the trip’s most valuable lesson was that compassion is a universal language.

“The experience taught me to never lose my humanism,” Greene said. “Sometimes the best medicine I could provide a patient was a brief conversation, a warm smile or a hand to hold.”

UCLA’s pediatric partnership in Peru

A decade ago, Dr. Lee Miller collaborated with physicians from UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital, with the support of leadership of the Department of Pediatrics, to launch Partners for Pediatric Progress, a non-profit under the umbrella of the school’s global health program.

The organization builds training partnerships that improve the care of children in Peru and Mozambique, supporting local clinicians who in turn teach the next generation of health care leaders. 

Learn how to make a difference in the lives of Peruvian children at Partners for Pediatric Progress.