When she was young, Dr. María Gabriela Alvarado cut open her favorite teddy bear and pulled out all its stuffing. Then she replaced its guts with bundled cloth and rolled-up socks, which served as internal organs. She used sponges for lungs and pipe cleaners for the trachea.
Today, Dr. Alvarado is energetic, funny and fashionable, and she retains the same playful spirit. She loves medicine. She loves children. She speaks Spanish and English fluently. At 25 years, she could still pass for a university student, yet her experience seems well beyond her years.
In September, Alvarado’s life will change considerably: The Tica general practitioner will spend a year studying health care management in Great Britain, thanks to the coveted Chevening Scholarship. The scholarship helps non-British students from 144 countries pursue postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom.
“I don’t think anyone who goes into medical school actually knows why they do it,” joked Alvarado the other day. “I was always a straight-A student. I always liked science, biochemistry.”
But Alvarado is also adventurous by nature: After earning her medical degree from the University of Costa Rica, she volunteered for social service duties. The practice of social service began many decades ago, when medical professionals in Costa Rica were scarce. While service is no longer compulsory, doctors often decide to work for a year in underserved communities.
So why would she volunteer if she didn’t have to?
“It’s fun!” exclaimed Alvarado. “You’re in the middle of nowhere, the middle of the jungle, surrounded by palm trees. After medical school, you don’t have any real experience. You have to just wing it.”
Alvarado was sent to Parrita, a town on the central Pacific coast, where she examined children, gave frank lectures on sex education, and hosted a “teddy bear clinic,” where kids could bring their stuffed animals and replicate a standard medical interview. (“Kids go hysterical around doctors. The whole idea is that kids are more comfortable with their teddy bears.”) Aside from distributing medicine and giving exams, Alvarado also worked closely with the residents of Puntarenas province to help educate them about general health.
“It was a bit frustrating seeing the limitations of the public health system,” said Alvarado. She noted that physicians often struggle to organize hospital systems because they have no training in administration. Alvarado was also critical of the state of women’s health – she is fiercely pro-choice in a country where abortion is illegal, and she feels that sex education is poorly taught. “People in Costa Rica are still uncomfortable with birth control for everyone,” she said, noting that teenage pregnancy is epidemic.
Applying for a Chevening Scholarship seemed like a logical choice: Sixteen years ago, Alvarado’s own mother, Marta Blanco Cordero, was a Chevening Scholar, and the family moved to Essex, England, when Alvarado was 9 years old. She learned fluent English, attended an English school, and the culture’s influence remained when she returned to Costa Rica a year and a half later.
“My mom is awesome,” declared Alvarado with a proud chuckle. “Single mother. An industrial engineer. She’s amazing.” She also holds two master’s degrees, in Environmental Studies and Project Management, the latter earned during her time as a Chevening Scholar. Today Blanco serves as executive director of the language program Costa Rica Multilinguë.
The scholarship will cover Alvarado’s airfare, moving expenses, living expenses, tuition, and furnish her with a monthly stipend. Alvarado plans to earn her degree, specializing in tropical medicine, in one year, then return to her homeland to implement what she has learned. “I plan to live in Costa Rica for the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to specialize in women’s health and work as an OBGYN. You have to start with education, start with the teachers.”
So what does her mother think about all this?
“She’s so happy,” said Alvarado with a laugh. “I’ve always been a bit spoiled, but now it’s ridiculous. ‘Yes, my darling daughter, whatever you want.’ She’s so excited.”
For more information about the Chevening Scholarship, visit the program’s website at www.chevening.org.