Monday, November 23, 2009

Quechua Benefit- 1st Medical Outreach

Quechua Benefit, the group which which Mirian and I volunteered, has provided a variety of services to the Quechua (native people, original alpaca breeders) of Peru for over ten years, with an emphasis on dental care and support of orphanages and food programs. They have also supplied emergency food and blankets to remote areas during extreme weather, etc. This was their first general Medical Outreach trip, and it wouldn't have been possible without the persistence of Dr. and Mrs. Dwight and Deborah Bailey of Seven Springs Alpaca Farm in VA and the volunteers they recruited. Having led medical mission trips in many countries around the world, the Baileys had the experience and enthusiasm to help make the trip happen and Quechua Benefit's leaders were willing to give it a try.

We all paid our own airfare, and were requested to bring along medicines that had been donated by various international charities as well as some paid for by Quechua Benefit or donated by individuals. Each of us carried two large suitcases, mostly stuffed with meds with only a little room for our clothes and supplementary food. After two full days of travel, we gathered on the eve of our first clinic to organize the mobile suitcase pharmacy.
The entire team was divided at this point to work in two different villages, and everyone began to get acquainted a bit. We had two doctors (Mary Beth and Jim), two nurses (Ursula from Maine and our awesome team leader, Dewanda, from Virginia), myself and Mirian, two interpretors from Peru, and Mirian's brother Yodi, who had met us at Juliaca airport with flowers in hand.
We were happy to be staying at beautiful Malkini, a private lodge and ranch at 12,500 feet, owned by Michel fiber company- they fed us well and provided comfortable surroundings for the three nights that we worked in the area. The altitude had its way with me in terms of insomnia for nearly the entire trip, but the medicine we took (Diamox) prevented other problems such as severe headache and nausea.
The first day we worked in Munani, a small village about 30 minutes from the lodge. As is typical, there were people waiting already when we arrived at the clinic. The dirt streets were filled with piles of rubble (construction is everywhere), dogs, and the occasional pig. We were stationed in a multi-use building that is a medical facility and town hall- we scoped it out and quickly moved furniture and supplies for our makeshift pharmacy room and arranged cots into exam rooms. The doctors got started examining patients- a little bit shell-shocked and slow at first as they worked through interpretors to determine the source of each patient's complaint.
Those waiting in line were eager and friendly, though sometimes the children were wary of our gringo faces- some having never seen light-skinned or blue-eyed people before. My job on the majority of the clinic days was to fill prescriptions. This entailed trying to read the doctor's instructions (MB and Jim wrote legibly, the others...!), counting out pills into a ziploc bag (or mixing antibiotics), and then either writing out instructions in Spanish and putting them into the bag or finding the corresponding instruction slip which had been made up ahead of time. My Spanish is a work-in-progress, so special instructions were challenging. Sometimes the patients only spoke Quechua, and our interpretor Inti would normally interpret the instructions for them. Mirian was a "runner" for the prescriptions, and she passed out stickers, pencils and balloons to the patients and played with the children. Her familiar Peruvian features and sunny personality were a comfort to the children, and she enjoyed her popularity since she loves kids.I didn't work directly with the doctors, but always enjoyed hearing about their challenges and successes. One challenge was simply getting the patients to quickly peel off all of their layers for their physical exams. The babies were bundled up soooo heavily (no wonder the moms are protective, only 5 of every 10 survives to age 10), and were adorable in their handknit hats. One of MB's patients held the record for most skirts worn at one time.... 10! The nurses observed early on that the patients had nearly universally low blood pressures and pulses... walking everywhere at high altitude does have it's benefits. There was virtually no obesity or diabetes, the afflictions which are so common in the U.S. That's not to say that the Quechua didn't have their challenges... intestinal parasites, aches and pains, horribly chapped skin, cataracts from years in the bright sun and other afflictions were very common. Serious cases such as heart murmers and cancer were referred for more specialized help in larger cities, and hopefully Quechua Benefit can help to facilitate some of those referrals. It was interesting to me that there was virtually no H1N1 (yet, and all of our team members had been vaccinated so we couldn't spread it), though in some areas lots of the children had upper respiratory infections. The doctors prescribed many medicines for pain that we all have in our purses and medicine cabinet and completely take for granted. Common antibiotics, ibuprofen and aspirin were treated like gold by those receiving them, and the recipients were extremely grateful for the little bit of hope in each bag, dispensed with a smile. Things went a bit more smoothly as we worked each day. The second clinic day we made a 3 hour trek (each way) on switchbacked dirt roads to the tiny village of Picotani. I figure I may be the only American to have ever had the privilege three times to see this remote cooperative where endangered vicunas are carefully managed. They have huge alpaca herds here, too, and we all appreciated the challenges of trying to raise something and survive in such a harsh place. This was likely the first time many of the patients had EVER been examined by a doctor, and they seemed to appreciate the care and attention given to them by each person on our team. I really enjoyed the great attitudes and encouragement with the team members while we were doing serious work. We had a good laugh with Dewanda over her trying to weigh this precious baby in all it's garb!

There were some sobering events as well, such as one toddler that was seen by Jim that has cerebral palsy and was unable to walk or talk, well-cared for by his young mother who was in tears. The realization sunk in that there weren't more children like this one seen as most don't survive. MB saw a patient with advanced melanoma, and tried her best to prescribe appropriate pain meds and give her some comfort and attention.

The memories began to run together as we worked at Mirasol orphanage and Accoyo and then joined the team for three clinic days in Macusani where Mirian formerly lived. There were many loooongg days and lots of moving suitcases filled with meds, and it was particularly cold at the hostel where we stayed in Macusani, where we slept in full clothing. (At least I didn't experience any strange critters on my bed as one team member did one night in a different hotel!)Mirian and her cousin, Katarina

I hope they won't mind my telling it, but Mary Beth and Jim were part of an awesome story... MB (our good friend who describes herself as NOT a very touchy-feely person) briefly came crying into the pharmacy on the 2nd day and said, "It may not be like adopting a child, but we are buying hearing aids for one!" She went on to relay the situation of a young girl and her mother and the sad story of this girl not attending school for two years due to her hearing loss. MB felt called to do something for her, but before anything could be arranged the girl and her mother were gone. In discussing how to find them, Mirian overheard the conversation and said, "Oh, that girl was my cousin!" Not an hour later we ran into them on the town square and requested that they come back to the clinic the following day so that arrangements could be made for her hearing aids. It's going to be awesome to follow this touching story, the answer to Katarina's mother's prayers.

I'm sure that every other volunteer on this trip is feeling as we do- especially grateful for our recent opportunity to serve and also glad to be back home in our comfortable and familiar environments. With over 2700 patients seen by our team's doctors and dentists, the trip was a huge success and a lot was learned that will help Quechua Benefit to do an even better job in future endeavors. As we go about our Thanksgiving, enjoying abundant food with family and friends, I know that my sense of gratitude will be more full than ever.

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1 comment:

Marti said...

Awesome recap. I especially loved the part about the one wearing ten skirts! Mercy sakes. I get tesy wearing one!