The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://dillerteenawards.org.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — While many teens might spend their summer vacations relaxing and enjoying time off, Nathaniel Melnitsky, 14, worked alongside his father in a makeshift medical clinic in a Guatemalan village.
This summer, through DOCare International, a medical outreach organization, Melnitsky and his father, an emergency medicine physician in Florida, worked with a team of other volunteers to set up and organize the clinic. The volunteers woke daily at 5 a.m. and drove an hour and a half before converting a school into a functional medical facility that would see approximately 1,600 patients in four days.
Melnitsky said he expected to merely shadow his father and the other medical staff. Instead, they put him to good use. He sorted through the equipment, gave eye exams and ran lab tests like an electrocardiogram, he said.
“It was really cool to learn and get the hands-on-experience of a medical student,” Melnitsky said.
But the experience wasn’t easy. Standing on his feet nearly all day and not speaking Spanish made it especially difficult, he said.
Yet the challenges paled in comparison to the economic challenges of the patients.
Many of the patients, including children, would have had to walk nearly eight hours to reach the closest hospital if not for the clinic, Melnitsky said.
“I thought it was really interesting to see how the world really is,” he said.
A freshman at the Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Fla., he recently became president of the pre-med club that he started there. Melnitsky said he is planning to organize volunteering initiatives at local hospitals for the club’s members. He also is hoping to return to Guatemala or go to Peru with his father next summer for another medical mission.
“It’s a separate world, and we’re very fortunate [in the United States] that we can have anything we need with a few touches on the iPhone,” Melnitsky said. “I’ll never think about things the same way.”
JTA spoke to him about his hero, the meaningful Jewish experience that he had recently and what he likes to do for fun.
Who is your hero and why?
My dad is a hero. I saw how he helps people and doctors, in general, how hard they work in their spare time without getting anything in return.
What are some important qualities in a hero?
They can have any attributes: courageous, smart, caring. There’s no format for being a hero. To be a hero, what do you want to do to help?
What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
I always liked Pesach because it was so cool to sit at a table and stay up really late and eat matzah. It’s so different from what I am used to.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had?
This past Yom Kippur I sat through all of the service and prayed the whole time.
What do you think you want to be when you grow up?
That’s a good question. Either a doctor or an engineer or both, maybe a biomedical engineer.
What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
I like swimming, biking, running.