"It is our responsibility to honor and be receptive to our patient's needs and wants."
What led you to pursue a fieldwork assignment abroad?
I always knew I wanted to do an internship abroad. My biggest motivation was the desire to experience something different and memorable. Perhaps it was my curiosity, or my adventurous soul that lead me to this path. All I know, is that it was an incredible experience that I will forever remember.
In what type of setting did you complete your fieldwork?
I was assigned to work in a public mental health institution named Dr. Ramon Fernandez Marina. This facility is one of the most famous public hospitals that treats patients with mental health disorders in the acute and sub-acute stage. It was within the walls of this hospital that for the first time I understood mental health disorders beyond the DSM 5.
Where did you live? Was the trip an expensive venture?
I lived with two other friends from school who also completed their fieldworks in Puerto Rico. We lived in a hotel in Centro Medico, which is actually a hospital with a mini hotel within its own facility. It was great because we all shared the cost, and we were able to budget accordingly. My advice would be to look for an airbnb in the area, and find a roommate if possible. Your travel cost will vary according to the country you are visiting, your length of stay, as well as your travel expectations and activities. Also, have a budget in mind and stick to it. Despite the fact that an internship abroad could be very expensive, it should not be an excuse not to fulfill your dream.
Describe what your day to day looked like at the hospital.
An occupational therapist in this setting is responsible for waking up the patients early in the morning for hygiene and grooming sessions, conducting a group therapy activity, assess a patient’s abilities and independence in ADL tasks, and most importantly instilling hope.
What was your biggest challenge while working at Dr. Ramon Fernandez Marina?
My biggest challenge working in this setting was not being able to erase a patient’s past from their memories. It is imperative to remember that as an occupational therapist you might be the only support system the patient might perceive to have inside the walls of the hospital. It is our responsibility to honor and be receptive to our patient's needs and wants. By doing so we can provide them with the necessary tools to create a bright future beyond a world filled with hallucinations and delusions.
What lessons did you learn from your experience?
My experience taught me not to define someone with a quick label (schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed) rather by his/her occupational identity (mother, sister, daughter, wife)- I quickly recognized that my patients were more than just a group of twenty-one women in the acute phase of their psychiatric disorder. These were women who had lost a great portion of their identities, who were often stigmatized by society, and sometimes even by their own family members.
My experience also taught me that mental health disorders do not discriminate against social class, political affiliations, educational or professional experience; they can affect anybody, including me.
What did you do during your free time when you where not working?
During my free time in Puerto Rico I had the opportunity to experience many outdoor activities, including Zip lining, hiking national parks, going to the beach, getting lost in Old San Juan, and learning Puerto Rican salsa. People in Puerto Rico are willing to go the extra mile to show you around, so you can learn more about their culture and traditions. My recommendation is to at least spend a week before, or after your internship living with the locals. Also, don't be afraid to visit new places, and getting lost in a new city.
In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently or change from your experience?
To be honest, no. I believe that we learn from all the experiences that we encounter in life. This internship was not the exception. I learned from every mistake, and I am thankful for my journey.
What advice would you give a student who would like to complete their fieldwork abroad?
First of all, if you are thinking about doing an internship abroad is because you are an adventurous person, and you want to make a difference in the world. I always ask people who ask me this one very important question... What is holding you back? Is it fear, is it money? What is it?
The truth is, that you might have to sacrifice many things to accomplish your career goals, but in the end everything will workout. You might have to convince your parents, your partner, have to work extra shifts at work, or reduce your budget to be able to afford your trip. You will also have to consider your travel destination, and how much you know, or not know about that specific country you have in mind.
My best advice, is to just do it! You will live an experience of a lifetime that will forever be in your memories. This experience will not only make you stronger, it will push you away from your comfort zone. Your internship abroad will teach you new skills that will in turn help your career development, and understanding of our profession. My recommendation... go buy that ticket, go plan that trip. What are you waiting for?