John Stafford, ’11, hadn’t settled on a major or career path when a close encounter with a Peruvian parasite sparked a keen interest in health care.

Eager for an international experience, Stafford, an Oldham Scholar and native of Birmingham, Ala., spent the summer after his first year in college working as a health intern in Ayacucho, Peru, with Cross-Cultural Solutions, a leading nonprofit in the field of international volunteering. He organized a 10-week camp offering hygiene and nutrition education and worked with a local team to implement a national Hepatitis B vaccination campaign.

Stafford also dug latrines for the local elementary school, which suffered from deplorable sanitation. In the process, he contracted a powerful parasite.

“As I lay flat on my back on a cot in a Peruvian hospital with an IV drip in my arm,” Stafford said, “I thought about how this happens to Peruvian children all the time. The government can’t provide a safe, healthy environment for children to go to school. By contrast, the FDA has eradicated any risk this parasite poses to the U.S. public school system and commercial-food industry.

“This was an eye-opening experience. I decided I wanted to excel in pre-health pursuits.”

As a sophomore, Stafford declared chemistry as his major and started doing research in Dr. John Gupton’s organic-chemistry lab, something he has continued to this day in his desire to learn the science behind medicine.

He also decided to improve his Spanish. “I couldn’t envision a job in my future that wouldn’t be enhanced by knowledge of Spanish,” Stafford said.

He practiced his Spanish and learned more about global health disparities while volunteering at the Richmond-based International Hospital for Children (IHC) to fulfill the community-based learning component of Dr. Carlos Valencia’s Spanish in the Community course.

Stafford ultimately achieved fluency in Spanish through a study-abroad immersion program in Santiago, Chile, during fall semester of his junior year.

The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Stafford a highly competitive Marsh Civic Fellowship to intern the summer after his junior year with Richmond-based CrossOver Ministry in a free health clinic serving many Spanish-speaking patients.

“This internship gave me the opportunity to gain exposure to the clinical side of medicine while serving as a translator for medical professionals,” Stafford said. “I also learned about health care at a time when health-care reform was in the spotlight.

“As a result of my internship and the discussions I had with Dr. Rick Mayes, my civic fellow faculty mentor, I came to realize the pivotal role doctors will play in health-care reform.”

Stafford plans to work on both the policy and practice of medicine. To address the former, he is applying for several competitive, yearlong fellowships and internships to start following his graduation in May. After a gap year, he hopes to attend a top-tier medical school. Ultimately he sees himself practicing bilingual medicine.

He will carry many of the lessons he learned during the last four years with him, such as CrossOver’s holistic approach to patient care and the importance of connecting to patients in a language they understand.

“MD doesn’t stand for medical doctor,” Stafford recalled a CrossOver doctor telling him. “It stands for make do, do good, and do it well.” Not bad advice for a budding health-care advocate and practitioner.