Third-​​year biology stu­dent Pri­tika Patel squeezed into a closet-​​sized makeshift emer­gency room at a public health clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, to help a woman give birth to twins.

To see an actual birth was com­pletely sur­real,” said Patel, who weighed the newborns.

On co-​​op from Jan­uary to April, Patel worked closely with nurse prac­ti­tioners and low-​​income patients at a clinic in Masipumelele, a town­ship in Cape Town. She mea­sured vital signs, ana­lyzed urine sam­ples and admin­is­tered preg­nancy tests.

The expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity rein­forced her desire to give back by helping patients get well, like her first co-​​op at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pital, in Boston, where she tested hearing in newborns.

Since I was 10 years-​​old, I’ve known that I wanted to be a doctor and that I wanted to work in poor areas of the world,” said Patel. “This co-​​op was amazing because it was like a little piece of all the things I said I want to do.”

Many of her patients were infected with HIV or tuber­cu­losis, including one woman who had been HIV pos­i­tive for 14 years. Up to 40 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Masipumelele is infected with either one or both of the diseases.

The HIV pos­i­tive woman had refused to take med­ica­tion. “Some of her friends were on anti­retro­viral drugs and died, so she decided to forego treat­ment and stick to healthful eating and prayer,” said Patel. “She was adamant about not taking med­ica­tion and said she was living for her children.”

In addi­tion to the clinic, Patel vol­un­teered two days a week at the Hokisa Orphanage in Masipumelele where she tutored chil­dren affected by HIV. A 9-​​year-​​old boy named Sive made a par­tic­u­larly strong impact on Patel, who called her friend­ship with the child the “best part of going to South Africa.”

Every week, I got to know him more and more,” said Patel, who shared music on her iPod with her new friend. “He told me about his weekend, and I would tell him about mine. It was so sad to say goodbye.”