My life in rural Ecuador

Dr Andrea Gardiner discusses her work to improve health and wellbeing in rural Ecuador.

Dr Gardiner with her husband Vladimir and daughters Tamara and Emily
Dr Gardiner with her husband Vladimir and daughters Tamara and Emily

Why did you decide to set up Project Ecuador?

I first went to Ecuador when I left school at 18. I knew a British couple working there as missionaries, so I went with a team for the summer to help build an orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS, which the couple were in the process of setting up.

Ever since that first visit, having seen the need of the people of Ecuador with my own eyes, I wanted to return better equipped to help. For that reason I studied medicine and once I had qualified as a GP, I returned in 2005.

I set up Project Ecuador to facilitate the various projects that I subsequently set up to help the local community.

I studied medicine in Edinburgh, then did a GPVTS in Aberdeen and Shetland. I decided to become a GP because I enjoyed working with patients in the context of their families and communities.

What are the project's aims?

Project Ecuador runs several programmes in the villages around Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas.

These include a village health centre, a sponsorship scheme to enable local children to go to school, a sewing project to help local women gain an income and building houses for poor families.

What does a typical working day involve?

I spend the morning at the village health centre attending babies with coughs and colds, children with asthma and older people with diabetes and high BP.

A large number of people come to see me with leg ulcers - the local hospital tends to amputate such limbs. We manage to save many of them.

I spend the afternoon at home with my two young daughters. The sewing group brings me their finished goods and I teach them the new designs that they are to sew. Children with sponsors may pop in needing craft materials for school or equipment to carry out a science experiment.

What is daily life like there?

I live where I work, in a village called Nuevos Horizontes in the foothills of the Andes, a few miles outside the city of Santo Domingo.

It is a rural area with local people working in the fields growing bananas, manioc and maize. Families also keep chickens, pigs and guinea pigs for food.

There are schools with 40-70 children and one or two teachers. There are three health centres in the area, with one part-time doctor each. People go to the city for hospital care.

Visiting a patient at home: hospital care involves going to the city

What are the challenges of practising medicine there?

One challenge is trying to treat disease with limited resources. Patients cannot afford expensive treatments, and some medicines I would use in the UK are not available here.

Another is convincing people to come to the doctor for treatment instead of using local remedies or going to the witch doctor.

Being a GP has prepared me by training me to use generic medicines, using resources in the family and working with the local community in education and health promotion.

What do you like best about the work that you do?

I love seeing that I have made a difference for someone else. For example, seeing a patient who had been told they needed an amputation, then seeing them come back dancing and laughing because their ulcer has healed. Or the day a child tells me they are doing well at school because they now have glasses, which Project Ecuador provided for them.

I also love hosting visitors from the UK. It is great to be able to give someone else their first taste of volunteering overseas.

Tell us about your book

The book covers my experiences in the first few years in Ecuador. It tells of the challenges of adapting to a new culture and a new way of practising medicine.

It also tells how I met my husband Vladimir, who is Ecuadorean, and how I became part of an Ecuadorean family. We now have two daughters, Tamara and Emily.

I called the book Guinea Pig for Breakfast because of the day my two-year-old brought me a guinea pig leg from the fridge and asked to have it for breakfast. It seemed so abnormal to me, but so natural to her. Such are the situations you find yourself in when living in a different culture.

Will you stay in Ecuador?

We have no plans to return to the UK, but one thing I have learnt from living in Ecuador is that you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Project Ecuador

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