The People of 24 de dieciembre

Ironically, my favorite moments were not at cultural landmarks or dining at any of the amazing restaurants located in Panama. While going to visit many important health buildings such as the vaccination center, and the cancer institute was intriguing, that still wasn’t it. It was actually interacting with the people of the 24 de dieciembre community. From conversations held in the center of the clinic to riding along with the vector control unit listening to residents express their concern for their health, I loved it! Every day within this community provided a new story, a new adventure, a different outlook on these individuals lives. Keeping it real, I was honestly nervous before arriving to the community. I wondered in advance, what would they look like, how would they even feel talking to us. We were strangers. Outsiders. We knew nothing about the things they experienced. But we soon would find out.

The first wake up call I received about the residents of this community was that tobacco smoking was not really a problem. Now this only proved to be a problem because my partner Lucia and I research strictly focused on adolescent smoking. So here is where I learned my first lesson, never assume you know what a community needs. This is a concept that has been learned over and over in my MPH courses. As public health professionals, we cannot go into a community and assume we know what needs should be addressed. So as we learned early one morning before meeting with the community from Dr. Calvo, Tobacco was indeed a non existent problem. And this was not only in the community of 24 de Dieciembre, but In all of Panama! Can you believe that? With a country wide public smoking ban, Panama had seen a decrease in the amount of smokers nationwide. So this left Lucia and I without a research topic, but not for long.

This is where I learned lesson number two: the community will let you know what their needs are. Dr. Calvo, an active part of this community expressed to us that alcohol consumption had grown to be a major problem in many communities, including 24 de Dieciembre. So now with that information, it was time to put on our thinking caps and consider how to address this community problem. After a lot of brainstorming, my partner and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to see if reasons behind the decrease in tobacco smoking could be useful towards decreasing the consumption of alcohol. Figuring that out was the easy part.

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