Cervical cancer is the number-one killer of women in Peru. Knowing this, the medical assisting program at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) teamed up with the cytotechnology and medical laboratory technology program to help provide Papanicolaou tests (or Pap smears) to Peruvian women.

"We wanted to do something with our study abroad program," says Cathy Flores, CMA (AAMA). "At the time of our first trip in 2015, I was program chair of medical assisting at Central Piedmont Community College, so I didn’t go."

The college’s cytotechnology program had established a relationship with the CerviCusco Project in developing a cervical cytology screening program in Cusco, Peru. To pay for a week of volunteering at the CerviCusco clinic in 2015 and 2017, students in the cytotechnology, medical assisting, and medical laboratory technology programs held bake sales and restaurant fundraisers, sold car wash gift cards, and solicited donations.

Before the trips, the CPCC Spanish educator gave the students a few lessons in terminology. "We’d role-play, so one of us was the patient, and the other was the medical assistant. We’d give instructions on how to lie down and what to do to prepare for the exam," explains Flores.

CerviCusco also conducts rural campaigns to offer free Pap smears to Peruvian women who may not have access to such medical care. The students and faculty participated in these campaigns, as well. "This meant they’d leave at 3 in the morning and drive six to eight hours through the Andes Mountains to get to a clinic," says Flores.

The Peruvian women were notified in advance that the campaign would be coming to their area to offer Pap smears, and many would walk for hours and even days to get to the clinics.

"Some campaigns were held in fresh air markets where people were getting their hair done and buying food," says Flores. "We’d set up a big tent with two folding tables, and that’s where the women would lie down to get their Paps done."

Flores and her students handed out pamphlets written in Spanish that explained what would happen during the examination. They also helped set up an Excel spreadsheet for the CerviCusco clinic to keep medical records because they did not have a way to track which patients had received their results and which staff person got back to them.

Flores says it was hard for the students to see they were making a difference during the trips, so faculty kept track of how many women they helped. Between the two trips, approximately 192 Pap smears were collected; 750 Pap specimens were processed; 1,337 Pap smears were screened; 135 urinalyses and vaginal smears were performed; 1,000 Pap slides were archived; and 587 medical records were either entered into an electronic database or organized.

"The students and even the pathologist we worked with were shocked by how many women we had helped," says Flores.

CPCC plans to keep building those numbers by embarking on trips every two years. Next up, the community college aims to visit Ecuador or Guatemala in 2019.

Aside from the hands-on medical assisting skills students learned, Flores says they experienced differences in access, delivery, and follow-up in health care between Peru and the United States, and they gained cultural awareness that was life-changing.

"It’s something you never forget—knowing how much of a difference you made in such a short amount of time," says Flores.