Discovering Costa Rica

Wow! It feels like much more than 13 days since we started the GMI program. Already, we have completed two short courses, visited hospitals, worked with Costa Rican students, visited international church, attended a soccer match, and hiked to beautiful waterfalls. I have had a great experience so far. I have learned loads, grown personally, been challenged, worked hard, and made many new friends. Because you don’t want to read a book, this post will only be a snapshot of the last 13 days. But first, some fun-facts about Costa Rica:

  • “Pura Vida” is the Costa Rican equivalent of “Hakuna Matata” and governs daily life
  • Ambulances and health care are free to everyone (paid by 9% income tax)
  • Traffic often makes driving slower than jogging
  • Black beans and rice (“gallo pinto”) are a staple at every meal

Typical Costa Rican dish called “casado.” This one contains the rice and beans, salad, fried plantains, and fish.

We kicked off our time in Costa Rica with a short course about how to find needs taught by Dr. Fearis, a professor at JHU. He explained that successful innovations start with identifying a need, not a brilliant idea. This ensures that the innovation is useful and wanted instead of just a novelty that will quickly be laid aside. He then detailed the process of “needs finding” for medical devices. It starts with observation in hospitals and interviews with health care workers. Then, we must analyze our notes and discuss our observations to uncover need statements. These statements are very specific about what the problem is, who it affects, and what the desired outcome is and guide the rest of the design process. Needs finding will comprise a chunk of our time in Costa Rica and also the fall semester.

The morning after learning how to find needs, I went to a distribution center with three Costa Rican students to put into practice what we had studied. Once we arrived, we began a tour of the facility. It was gigantic! The facility handles most of the health care supplies for the entire population of Costa Rica, over four million people! We started our tour at the reception area where the trucks deliver pallets of supplies. Here was where we spent most of our time interviewing an energetic pharmacist who was taking inventory of the arriving supplies. She was more than willing to share various needs that she experienced daily. Then she explained more about her work in her office and we finished our tour by gawking at the enormity of the warehouse itself. It had six-story tall shelves for the pallets that stretched far into the distance (see picture below). Sadly, we ran out of time before we could watch the process of loading pallets onto the sixth story. However, we were still able to tease several need statements from our observations.

The giant distribution center warehouse that we visited for needs finding.

On Sunday, we took a (well-deserved) break from working and were privileged to visit an international church close to our hotel. Luckily, three of the church members were able to translate for us. Even in English, it was definitely an experience for me. I had never been to a charismatic church before and so I didn’t know what to expect when a woman offered to prophesy over me. But she respectfully encouraged me with words from God. So our morning was spent in cultural immersion, and I spent the afternoon in the park across the street. Towards the end of the day, we played volleyball over a soccer post because there were no nets. Everyone who walked by stared at the strange Americans who preferred volleyball to soccer. Ironically, several days later, we attended a soccer match between Costa Rica and Panama. It was a high stakes game as they played for a spot in the world cup; the fans were very energetic as well. We even joined in on some of the Costa Rican cheers. Unfortunately, our cheers were ineffective as the game ended in a tie. But the game was one of the highlights of my week, not in the least because it was my first soccer game.

Costa Rica vs. Panama soccer match. My first soccer match ever.

Our next three days were spent on more needs finding at local hospitals. It was enlightening to me to see the sheer number of patients in the hospital and the length of the lines. The hospital that I visited serves half of the population for Costa Rica, so it was very crowded. My favorite part of the visit was observing a catheter operation. We entered the operating room and watched as the surgeon threaded the wire through a man’s arm vein to his heart. Then, a machine showed us the network of veins in the heart as the doctor injected a dye through the wire. It was amazing! We could see the outline of the heart and the movement as it beat. It looked like a sci-fi movie but was real-life and in real-time.

The hospital in San Jose where we saw the heart catheter.

For the past several days, we have been working with some Costa Rican students on design projects from the needs that we identified in the hospital. We, as the Rice students, took the lead in introducing our respective topics to our teams. I really enjoyed this, even though it was difficult at times to guide my team. I grew a lot personally through the experience as I learned how to reconcile various personalities and keep us on track with the fast and furious deadlines. We worked together to design a device that reduces the pain associated with removing stitches. We even built a low-level prototype in only 4 days. Our final presentations are on Monday and I am proud of how far we have come. I have been honored to work with many outstanding students and have learned a lot about leadership, teamwork, aesthetic design, and the process of taking a product from ideation to production. It has been a very long, but even more rewarding week.

A drawing of our stitches removal device.

Our low-level prototype of stitches removal device.

Today (Sunday, June 11), we took another well-deserved break, and visited La Paz park as a team. I had a blast! We started the morning by hand-feeding hummingbirds with a plastic, nectar-filled tube. The birds buzzed around us like giant bees, but thankfully were harmless. Then we got to see some animals at the mini-zoo including jaguars, monkeys, snakes, birds, and sloths. There were also various walk-through exhibits where butterflies, frogs, and toucans moved around us. Then, we hiked to a series of five waterfalls, all along the same river. Lastly, we ended our day at the park with a soak in the hot-tub before driving back. On the way back, we bought some strawberries grown in the volcanic soil nearby and tried some fresh cheese. The cheese was quite delicious, but the strawberries just tasted normal to me.

One of five roaring waterfalls at La Paz.

The rainforest at La Paz. Looks like an Indiana Jones movie.

One foot away from a toucan. Not something you see in Oklahoma!

It’s been a fantastic 13 days so far and I am excited for the next part of our adventure. We will move on from San Jose and begin Phase II of our time in Costa Rica tomorrow. Stay tuned for weekly updates!

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