Wednesday, July 24, 2013


The last few weeks have been jam packed with work, fun, and travel. I've really gotten to feel at home - or as much as is possible considering that my stay has an expiration date - mostly thanks to making some more friends in Quito and getting busy with work. 

One particularly exciting thing is that I've been able to pick up a lot of skills simply by watching Dave and others in the lab. Much of the credit goes to Dave, who is a fantastic teacher - super encouraging, and he doesn't dumb things down for me just because I'm not a master in the field. I'm not sure I've ever met someone who can be so much fun and so goofy and yet still get things done extremely well and efficiently. 

So, this is to say that it was really cool when Dave told me to get a trans-tibial (below knee) prosthesis ready for a patient and I was able to complete all the steps: filling the mold, pulling the plastic, cutting and grinding the plastic, and putting the leg and foot together. And what's better -- I got to help deliver the prosthesis to the patient - a guy named Marco - and watch him test it out. 

A little about Marco:
Some years ago he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of cancer that is typically found in the legs and often requires amputation. After the operation, Marco decided he wanted to study medicine and work with cancer patients. Right now he's in the middle of his studies -- the tragic thing is that doctors have found osteosarcoma tumors in his lungs. This diagnosis is pretty bleak, meaning Marco will likely die before he can become a doctor. Despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), Marco was absolutely beside himself with the new leg. In 15 minutes he was jumping around and kicking me a soccer ball that we have in the kids toy box in the fitting room. Just this week he invited Dave to a potato-picking party at his family's house as thanks. 

With this situation, it's hard to forget that Marco is dying. When he left Proteus, I didn't know what to say, really. I said something like, "It's my pleasure. Good luck with everything!" I think Dave did it better, saying "See you next time." I suppose it's a reminder that you can have a success story hand in hand with sadness. It's an amazing thing to be able to give someone their mobility back, but it doesn't beat having an actual limb or not having cancer. 


Part of the reality of being here is that there are a lot of people passing through my life. Growing up, you get accustomed to people being permanent fixtures your day-to-day. And then, you go off to college and some of those fixtures change and now you have some new permanent people. But as a traveler, friendships can be 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 days. It feels easy to open up, often, because fellow travelers are like unlikely comets crashing into each other and then going on their merry way -- the probability that you met this person, here, is so preposterous that you might as well just be yourself. 

In many ways, I'm also passing through the lives of the patients I work with. I'm getting a little glimpse into their world and then sending them off with some pretty cool new hardware. I wonder what that means to them, or if they'll remember the blue-eyed American volunteer that spoke broken Spanish to them and handed them their new leg. Just some thoughts and questions I guess... not as many answers, but that's ok. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mindo, the Cloud Forest!

I haven't had a travel post in a while, so here it is. My friend Andrew and I went to Mindo a couple weekends ago, and it was the bomb-dot-com. First off, the bus ride there was, shall we say, unique. The bus was full when we got to the station so we sad on the floor in the aisle between the seats... it was one of those moments where I knew I could appreciate the youthful experience at the time but wasn't sure if I'd be doing this at 40. Luckily some people got off so we did end up with seats for most of the ride. 

So, without further ado, we arrived in Mindo. All I can say to sum up the place is: beautiful, tropical, friendly people, tranquil. Mindo is in the cloud forest and at a lower elevation than Quito. It's got a cute little river running through it, which was refreshingly familiar to Upstate NY. The first thing we did upon getting there was get settled at this cute hostel on the river with a nice host named Henry, who had worked for a time in London in fancy shmancy hotels and the like. Then we checked out the chocolate factory, El Quetzel, and had a brownie and some ice cream. We didn't end up getting to do the factory tour, alas, but maybe some time in the future. 

Andrew Crosses the River to Retrieve the Forgotten Sunscreen

The next adventure was ziplining! We walked pretty far up this hill and then fortunately caught a shuttle the rest of the way up. Hilariously, there were two stoic cows at the entrance of the ziplining that were just staring us down, as pictured. 

Judging Cows

Alright, so there were 13 ziplines that crossed 2 valleys and varied in speeds. Overall, super fun. But nothing topped the last line I did wherein the zipline guide went with me and flipped me upside down (still safely strapped in), so I flew across the valley mariposoa(butterfly) style. 

The town in general had a great vibe -- really laid back with very friendly people. We saw two boys on the road trying to fix a bike, and we did our best to help them out but the chain was too big. They were super cute and said "Have a long life!" or something like that to us when we left.

At night we went to a fun bar/club with some good salsa dancing. Andrew and I worked on our moves amidst the crowd of other dancers, and I think we did respectably. We looked for another place to go out, but all we found was a Quincinera that was blasting techno music. At first we thought it was the lamest club in the world, but the 15 year olds in dresses kinda gave it away. The next day, we heard a couple Americans saying they mistakenly went in there to party and were awkwardly rocking out amidst the family/friends of the birthday girl = so funny. 

The next morning we had a 6 am bird watching tour planned, and in classic fashion we woke up an hour late but we still got to go with Irman, our guide. At first, things were a bit dull BUT THEN we started seeing the toucans  There are 4 species of toucan native to Mindo and we saw... wait for it... all four. Boo ya. We got to look through a sweet bird telescope to see them up close. Overall, I'm not sure I have the patience to be a bird enthusiast, but this was pretty cool. 

Toucan Action

Afterward, we went tubing on the river, which really mean bumping around in big black inner tubes, scooting over rocks and avoiding branches. But it was a good time, and a short little excursion. 

It was an adventure filled weekend, and we had a nice ride back to Quito. I really loved Mindo because of the great community feel and the beauty and tropical forest feel. Highly recommended if anyone ever gets to Ecuador.  

Good Times with the Military.

Working at ISSFA (Instituto de Seguridad Social de las Fuerzas Armadas - Institute of Social Security for the Armed Forces) has allowed me a glimpse into the corporate/military world in Ecuador. The work environment is much different at Proteus, where it's such a small group of us joking around and such (and getting work done!). 

Here's how it goes at ISSFA. I catch the bus for about 10 minutes and it drops me right off at the door. I've taken to liking the bus, perhaps more as a cultural insight than anything else, because there's always some form of entertainment. The other day there was a rapper (I think the same guy as before), an opera singer, and a guy playing guitar and panflute who performed on the various legs of the commute. So, once at ISSFA, I have to get a special pass to go the the 2nd floor where my boss, Armando, is. Then I get in my cubicle and start plugging away at the database, while listening to music or an audiobook. It brings me back to that "traditional" engineering job, the one where you sit at a computer from 9 to 5 every day. I'm excited about setting up the database and what it means for military amputees, so that keeps me chugging along through the day. But I am certainly reminded that I'm not the cubicle type, or not all the time at least. 

There are some fun norms and quirks at ISSFA. For example, everyone wears the same uniform every day. I noticed that Armando and another worker were both wearing salmon and grey suits and then he pointed out that everyone was wearing them - it goes beyond a dress code even... the clothes are bought by ISSFA and supplied in the correct sizes to the workers, kind of like a school uniform. Hm, what else? Well, in Ecuador in general saying hello and goodbye to people is very important and polite. At Proteus it's easy because we just say hey to the few people who work there. But at ISSFA the norm is to announce "Buenos Dias" to a whole room of people when you walk in, and they all respond back. 

The different floors play different music. My floor is salsa, which I like. But the 3rd floor, which is the tech people, plays heavy metal (hilarious). The guy who was trying to set up wifi for me had a screensaver of a band called "SouldBurn". Not my style, so I'm thankful to be with the salsa crew. For lunch, we go up to the 7th floor to eat an in-house almuerzo, and afterward everyone walks around outside to digest. I have to say, I really love the food culture here. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and everyone, without fail, takes about and hour to eat with coworkers and take a break from the day. I'm very convinced that this contributes to a better work environment here and would greatly improve the work experience in America. 

So I work with Armando, a cheery guy who's quick to laugh and talk really slowly for me when I'm having trouble understanding something. There's also Gustavo, who asked me if I was single 2 minutes after meeting me. He's a nice guy though - a 25 year old marine with a kind of boyish look and voice... I think that's enhanced by the marine uniform he wears which looks like a little boy's sailor halloween costume (in an adorable way). He's actually really good at English, so it's nice to be able to communicate a little less haltingly. 

Even in the corporate environment, people are very jovial here. It's rare to go a moment without someone cracking a joke or teasing a friend. People love to tell me that their coworkers are "loco" (crazy) and things like that; they think it's pretty hilarious to embarrass their buds in front of a gringo. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Day in the Life

I've been doing a lot of storytelling in this blog, but I want this post to be about the little day to day things that happen and might get lost in the hustle and bustle otherwise. In many ways I still feel like a fly on the wall here, observing this place from an outsider's perspective and cocking my head at some of the perceived oddities.

Walking to work:
So I go uphill about 20 mins to get to work, and I walk faster than essentially everyone here. I don't know if that's because I'm used to it from the states or because I just know where I'm going and don't really meander much. There's a lady who sells madura (sweet plantain) with cheese in the same spot on the street every day... I've been meaning to buy one from her but haven't yet. Most of the stores here are these weird little things that sell a small amount of a bunch of random stuff, almost like a flea market. I don't know how that type of business model works out, but I suppose it does. Though I've heard from Americans who are in business here that the Ecuadorian business model isn't very competitive- as in, they have a lax way of approaching cost/profit. Crossing the road here is either a complete science or no science at all, I'm not sure yet. All I know is that most people are constantly flirting with disaster. To go along with the weird shops here there are street vendors selling the most random stuff - crocs being one of the highlights. 

There's one store that I pass that only plays Adele... literally, it is the only music I have ever heard coming from that place. 

Goofin' around in the Lab

Taking the bus:
Only been doing this for a little bit because I use the bus to get to ISSFA, where I'm working on the government database. Today there were a couple amateur rappers serenading the bus. I caught that they said the word "casa" (house) and that's about it but  it was cool anyway. They were followed by a guy with a stomach tumor who showed it to everyone and was asking for money. Part of me was glad that in America there is enough of a culture of detachment/personal space that something like this wouldn't generally happen, but then I thought maybe it was sad that most people in America wouldn't show their stomach tumors because they know no one would care that much. Well, that, and we are generally healthier, at least in visible ways. But you're probably not gonna run into a diabetic in America who'll ask you for money for their insulin. The motorcycles here don't really follow any sort of road rules. Today I saw a guy drive about 100 metres on the sidewalk when traffic was slow. 

I went into a market today and there were entire roasted pigs on in, everything from head to tail in almost one piece (it was already dead though, phew). The ladies at the stands were trying to get everyone to try a little sample of some part of the pig kind of like Chinese fast food in American shopping malls. 

Last week when I had a cold/fever, my roommate's dad suggested a mix of rum, lemon juice, and coca cola as a cure. That one cracked me up... I kind of feel like it would work. Or it'd be so disgusting you'd forget you're sick. 

Now almost 6 weeks in, I also feel myself adjusting in some ways to Ecuadorian life. The first time I tried Almuerzo (the 4 course, $2.50 lunch that is proliferous here) I was underwhelmed. Now, however, I'm verging on obsessed. For one, the amount of variety they serve day to day is incredible and the food is always fresh. There's a great balance between veggies, meat, and carbs. And it's such a good deal too. I've really gotten to like the understated, homey flavor of these dishes. I've been wondering if the restaurants actually turn a profit serving almuerzos - they must, but I doubt it's very much. I think school lunch programs in the states should adopt these, for real.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Projects

Something that has always challenged me is creating new momentum for a project or experience. I've always been quite good at exceeding expectations when they are laid out for me, but I sometimes struggle with creating my own expectations and goals. At the halfway mark of this experience, I found myself looking for small projects to keep me on my toes and to go beyond the learning experience I've had in the lab. 

For a short time, this meant that I was looking around the lab and trying to invent a design problem to create a solution to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it left me staring off into the lab with not much to do. That's when I realized that this impulse stemmed from my desire to connect, in a very literal way, this experience to my engineering design background. However, as good as design challenges can be when they do present themselves, I've decided that I shouldn't waste time trying to fabricate them to the exclusion of simpler, less tangible goals. 

There are many small tasks I can take on at work that will bring more meaning to my experience and yet have nothing to do with engineering. For example, I have often been in the room with families, alone, while Dave has to go make a quick adjustment to a prosthesis. Though my spanish is improving, I am often left with a lack of proper grammar/vocabulary to address the patients and ask them about their day, their lives, likes and dislikes, etc. So, a very valuable and extremely simple goal I've set for myself is to improve my conversation with patients at times like these. This means more actively getting on top of my spanish and even memorizing certain phrases with correct grammar, etc. 

Fortunately, I've recently come into two new projects that will keep me busy until I head home. On top of the work I do at the lab, I'm going to be creating a database for military amputees that makes it easy to see who needs prostheses updates and when they need them. This will allow the government to propose all of the prosthetics work for their amputees, in any given year, all at once. This makes the whole process streamlined because the entire year's schedule can be figured out at once which cuts down on the possibility that a patient's prosthesis gets delayed due to organizational inefficiency. 

The second project that I'm working on is designing a new rack to hold the large sheets of plastic we use in the lab. Right now, the plastic is leaning on a wall and wedged behind the oven which makes it super difficult to get at and even more so to put back. One of the best things about having Dave as a boss is that he is ridiculously supportive of any and every idea that I throw at him. I mentioned that the plastic was difficult to work with and we immediately started going back and forth with ideas for a solution. He basically said, Design it and we'll have it custom built. So, there's my engineering design project. And it came to me more after understanding how the lab worked than by arbitrarily looking around and picking something to change. I've got a few ideas sketched up which I'll talk to Dave about tomorrow, but I'm very excited by the independence this project gives me as well as the fact that it will become a tangible reality. I also love bouncing ideas off of Dave, and together we both start nerding out on the concepts. 

The work in the lab continues to be rewarding, and I get great satisfaction out of improving at any particular task. If I were to go into this field, though, it would be as the prosthetist (or maybe an engineer designing the parts) as opposed to a technician because I need the intellectual challenge that the human physiology brings to the table. The combination of biological problem solving (determining how to fix someone's current physiology) and technical problem solving (figuring out how to actually fabricate a prosthesis/part that accomplishes that) is the best of both worlds. 

All of this has certainly made me think about getting a master's degree in prosthetics. At this point, it seems to make sense to work for a bit out of college to get industry experience and get a better sense of how I fit into industry and what my specific likes/dislikes are. And then, after, to look towards a masters... I'm still pondering neuroscience and product design as two other options as well.