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W&L Students Invent Class in Medical Spanish

Once a week throughout the winter term, three Washington and Lee University students and one professor gathered in a room in Leyburn Library and discussed, in Spanish, everything from the relationships between indigenous people and doctors in Guatemala, to how to say specific medical terms in Spanish.

Titled Medicine & Healing in Guatemala, the one-credit independent course was originally created as a way for senior Maggie Holland to prepare for a summer trip with a surgical team to Guatemala.

“I wanted to learn more about medical Spanish and about Guatemalan culture and history,” Holland said.

No class fit her needs precisely, so Holland approached Washington and Lee Spanish professor Ellen Mayock.

“I asked about doing an independent study, and Professor Mayock kindly agreed,” said Holland.

And then Holland mentioned her plan to a friend, Megan Bock, a senior biochemistry major.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to medical school. I’m definitely interested in developing my Spanish so I can use it throughout my career’,” Bock said.

So she was in.

Then Manuel Garcia Padilla, a junior who wants to pursue public health as a career, got wind of Holland and Bock’s course.

So he was in, too.

And the result, said Mayock, is just the kind of collaborative effort that she has come to expect from Washington and Lee students.

“I compiled a list of texts, and we talked about what we wanted to get out of the hour we would spend together each week,” Mayock said. “Really, these three have taught this class, because they know tons more about healing than I do. So we have rotated the books among them. They will each have taught four lessons from each of the books, with me interjecting or getting the conversation going.”

Their sessions have been lively. Some weeks they have focused on the intricacies of medical Spanish. That will be indispensable for Holland, who will interpret for a team of surgeons as part of the national Faith in Practice program.

Then they have had discussions about the way patients might react when they arrive at a hospital for a surgical procedure, when they have usually been treated by traditional healers.

“We’ve talked about bonesetters, shamans, herbalists, midwives,” said Bock, who worked in a public medical clinic in Chile two summers ago. “It’s a vast field of healers. A lot of people in Guatemala choose to go to traditional healers based on accessibility and their comfort zone. We’ve read a lot about fear being associated with going to the hospital.”

Then, turning to Holland, she adds: “I hope you don’t have to deal with that. It could be difficult.”

Padilla worked on a public health project in Mexico City and knows a little of what Holland will be facing.

“All this preparation is going to give her a mindset that will prepare her for what she is going to see,” he said. “If I had a similar preparation before I went to Mexico, I wouldn’t have had so much difficulty trying to understand my surroundings. When I got there, these terms were flying around, a lot of acronyms, and I wondered what on earth was going on. Eventually, it started to make sense.”

Holland, a biology major who will enter Duke University’s physical therapy program in the fall, said that she has always wanted to make the trip with Faith in Practice. She believes the course has helped prepare her in ways that she didn’t even expect.

“Certainly the language instruction has been invaluable, but I’m sure that getting a good sense of the culture and social hierarchy will help me do a much better job of translating,” she said.

Naturally, the students and their professor view the course as an example of the kind of experience they’ve had a W&L.

As Holland said, “Whenever you have an interest you want to pursue here, you can just do it.”

Bock has been interviewing at medical schools and takes every opportunity to cite the course as distinctive. “I really sold this class in my interviews,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m actually taking a class that one of my classmates created.’ It’s impressive.”

Mayock noted that the University’s new online registration helped advertise the class. In the past, independent studies would not be posted on the website for all students to see. Now that they are, she said, several students have asked about this course.

“We could have had a few more students, except that the time didn’t work,” she said. “I think this course and the way it’s developed says a lot about what we value here at Washington and Lee.”

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