“This mother comes in with a little boy. And she tells me he hasn’t spoken and he doesn’t walk and he’s two and a half years old.”
Doctor Don Moore is telling me about his first day at the clinic he helped set up in Huamachuco, Peru.
“And he doesn’t even crawl. But he knows his name. He responds and looks up when you say his name.”
I’m sitting looking at the sun dropping behind the mountains encircling this little town. It sits at just over 10,000 feet in the Andes. I’m up here with director/videographer Alberto Moreno (If you follow us, you know Al). We’re following a group of doctors, MSU medical students and medical residents who have come on a medical mission. This is third year such a group has made the trek.
Just getting here is quite the adventure. Let me run you through it quickly. Al and I flew from Detroit to Atlanta. Had a six-hour layover. Then flew from Atlanta to Lima, Peru. Then we all, all 41 of us, climbed aboard a bus for a 10 hour trip to Trujillo. We spent two nights in Trujillo, then climbed aboard another bus for the 8 hour ride up here to Huamachuco.
Now, I don’t want to take you through every twist and turn of the trip, but let me say that it was something else. I’ve been on a lot of rough roads and harrowing bus rides, but I have never been surrounded by as many moaning, crying and throwing up people as I was on the ride through the hairpin turns to Huamachuco. There were many, many, MANY times when if you looked out the side window and down toward where you thought the road should be, all you’d see was space. All you’d see was the world falling away next to you and a few hundred feet of rocks and cliff before the next ledge.
Al and I lost track of how many people were throwing up. And, as you know, throwing up is a chain reaction kind of thing. It’s tough to keep yourself together when the woman next to you is losing herself into a plastic bag. Um, I’m trying to show you what it was like, but I’m trying not to paint it too vividly. But there was a single bathroom aboard and it quickly became a sort of road sickness war zone. And with the serpentine road and breakneck pace, there was no way the ill could make it there anyway. So, plastic bags. Lots and lots of plastic bags. At one point we pulled over, I think even the driver felt sorry for his pitiful cargo, and the green tinged humanity piled out onto the nearby hillside. Everywhere there were the sounds of sickness.
After passing over the summit at just under 14,000 feet, the highest I have ever been in a vehicle, we began our speedy trip down and, finally, to Huamachuco.
And here I sit. We just wrapped up day two of the clinic.
I won’t talk about the food. I won’t talk about the accommodations (although my room and at least one other was broken into, nothing stolen). I won’t talk about the wide ingestion of Cipro to battle inner, microscopic, food-borne demons. But, well, you can probably figure out that this isn’t a pleasure trip. But it is wonderful to be here.
“We’re finally getting to work, we’re finally getting to what we came for,” says med student Joe Gorz who’s one of the leaders of this trip.
In the first two days they figure they saw and treated more than 200 people. When the clinic opened at 8:00am the first day there was a line of folks who’d come from near and far to be seen. And it’s been non-stop stop since.
The students and docs are abuzz with chatter of what maladies and illnesses they’ve seen. It’s a treasure trove of pathologies. They are lovin’ life right now. Well, most of them. Some of the medical attention has been directed at our own ranks. “They’re droppin’ like flies man!” Al is watching another student heading for “el bano,” clutching his gut. The combination of altitude and nerves and food challenges has meant a thinning of the crowd. But they’re bouncing back quickly and there are, obviously, plenty of doctors. So it’s fine. And I am being VERY careful what I eat. And I am starving, constantly. Ah, well…
Back to the mission. These are people who live in very basic conditions. One of the discussions here has been whether this is a third-world country or a developing country. I can’t figure it out, but the lives here are lived close to the ground and without a lot of technology or niceties we’re used to in the States.
It is gorgeous here and I think this may be the best weather, according to me, of any work trip I’ve taken. It’s been sunny, low-to-mid 70’s and dry as a bone. The skies are achingly blue with small puffy clouds.
The locals wait patiently under the stunning skies, sometimes for hours, to be seen. But things run smoothly and the few that are turned away seem happy to return the next day.
“We try to get everyone in. Everyone. Last night we stayed, what, two hours later than planned?” Assistant MSU dean Dr. Gary Willyerd has been coming to work here in Peru for 12 years. “At a certain point we just have to close the doors, but we’re back here early the next day. We’ll get ‘em in.”
The clinic is up and running for five days. In those days they expect to see more than 1000 people and hand out most of the more $100,000 in medications the students and docs brought in their suitcases. Meds paid for by funds raised for this mission.
I’m wiped out but I can’t complain. Or at least I shouldn’t. It’s really cool seeing the work going on here and the appreciatio that comes in hugs, cheek kisses and blessings bestowed upon the caregivers.
Back to where I started, Dr. Moore is telling me about the small child he saw his first day. “So I ask the woman to lay the child down on the bad so we can get a look at him. And she unwraps all the blankets she’s got him wrapped up in. And he’s very small. And I can tell, right away, that he has Down’s syndrome.” The veteran physician lowers his head as he tells it. “And the mom has no idea. Not a clue.” He pauses and takes a slow sip of his drink. “And so I have to tell her about it and I know he won’t ever get the sort of care that could help him in the U.S. And so that…that was awfully tough.”
The two days here have been just like that. Moments of hope when a child is given a packet of medication that will make him better. Moments of crushing sadness when a diagnosis is that of a hard life ahead.
And we’re just two days into it.
The sun is gone now and I need to find something to eat. I think we’re meeting for dinner at 8:00p.