Research and Maté

plaza de constitucion

It’s been a very full week! Let’s start by talking about research, which I know you’re all eager to hear about. Monday we met with our field supervisor here, who was very kind to us. We took a tour of the office and met a few coworkers – we’ll meet the rest of them this coming week. We reviewed our data collection tools together; the supervisor and I continue to pass my survey tool back and forth with edits and comments. So I’ll tell you a little more about my survey. It’s a short quantitative tool of about 25 questions, which I’ll be administering in person. “Quantitative” means that the information I’m collecting is measurable with numbers, e.g. what percentage of respondents report having any training in abortion services. Every question has a list of possible answers to choose from. This works well for my limited Spanish proficiency; the survey is entirely in Spanish. Bethany, on the other hand, has more comfort and skill (and experience) speaking Spanish, particularly South American Spanish (I learned Mexican Spanish and a bit of Spain Spanish). Her work is qualitative – instead of measuring quantities she will collect descriptions, conversations, which she’ll transcribe and analyze.

In research, we need to identify the population we’re studying. Our population is gynecologists in Montevideo, so next we need a list of all the people who fall into that category. I will be sampling randomly from that group to get a sample that’s as close to representative as possible. So our field supervisor arranged a meeting with a gynecologist here who is very well-connected with gynecologists working in the public sector.

We met with her Thursday. We wore our dress pants, impractical shoes, blazers. We walked to the office to meet our supervisor and drive together to the meeting. The two Uruguayans in the meeting were wearing jeans. The doctor was very warm to us; like nearly everyone else we’ve met, she kissed us hello on the cheek when she met us. (If you haven’t experienced this, imagine the US image of French people greeting; it’s friendly, warm but not romantic, and here completely professional.) She also poured a gourd of maté. So, let’s talk about that. (Uruguayans and those who have spent time here may find this incredibly boring, and may skip the next two paragraphs.)

Yerba maté is ubiquitous here. When you walk down the street, perhaps one out of every four adults you see is carrying maté. “Carrying” means in their hand they have a hollowed-out gourd filled with tea leaves, and a metal straw with a filter at the bottom to filter out the tea leaves from the liquid—and tucked under their arm they have a thermos, usually 1-1.5 liters, of hot water to refill the tea.

Sharing maté is also very common, so at our meeting the doctor poured a fresh bit of hot water into her maté gourd and passed it to our supervisor, who drank it all up. Then the doctor replenished the hot water and passed it to me to drink. Bethany has determined that maté is not for her – it’s fairly bitter, and no milk is involved (though some opt for sugar).

As a nurse and a public health student, I can’t help but think about infection control most of the time. But I’ve been fascinated by the maté sharing. We went to a conference for gynecologists yesterday, and in this room full of doctors there were countless clusters sharing maté with each other. My thinking is that everyone gets small amounts of everyone else’s microorganisms, and can then make antibodies against them – “cross-immunotherapy” is one term for this. Meanwhile Bethany has a respiratory infection, a cold or flu, while I’m the one who has been sharing maté. With the combined cultural norms of sharing maté, cheek-kissing everyone you meet, and staying out dancing until all hours, folks must either get sick all the time or end up with fierce immune systems. So far I do see that these things create a warmth between people, as well as keep everyone cozy in the cooling weather.

The meeting was very helpful; the gynecologist was able to help us identify sources of information for compiling our comprehensive list of Montevideo gynecologists. She also recommended that we attend the gynecologists’ conference. We unfortunately missed the first day due to Bethany’s illness, but we enjoyed yesterday’s talks including some about vertical childbirth and ethical issues surrounding patient requests for homebirth (which is not very popular here, it seems) or caesarian-section birth (which is more so). Neither family planning nor abortion were discussed in the talks we attended, though other talks on the schedule addressed family planning. There were lectures on post-partum sexuality, which looked interesting. The conference was sponsored, at least in part, by a pharmaceutical company; we saw large ads in the conference space for that company’s birth control medications.

I’ll leave other cultural notes and stories of our adventures for the next post; we want to get to the open-air market to buy vegetables and some wool so I can knit Bethany a hat.

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