Faculty voice:

Gary Willyerd: Bringing health and wellness to Peru

Feb. 27, 2019

Gary Willyerd is the associate dean for Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Detroit expansion site.

As the leader of the Global Outreach Program, I recruit students, physicians and community partners who provide basic healthcare and education to people in Peru, Guatemala, Cuba and other places in need.

The program is part of a comprehensive educational experience offered by the College of Osteopathic Medicine and offers students diverse experiences, which lead to them becoming more skilled and adept physicians.

Our mission is to provide basic healthcare. It's primary care, but we try to include all aspects including dental, vision, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, dermatology, podiatry, internal medicine and more. We also want to give students hands-on experience under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Our first Peru cohort went to Lima in fall 2009 and the latest trip took place at the beginning of the fall semester this year in Iquitos, the capital of the Loreto region and the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest.

We have access to an army base where students treat soldiers, and we are able to utilize the facilities for our patients as well. We spend time in the army hospital clinic, providing service in the poorest part of Iquitos. We also board the Amazon Queen, a floating clinic, which we take 25 miles down the Amazon River to care for people who might not otherwise see a physician. The only healthcare services these people typically receive require them to travel to Iquitos, where medical resources are difficult to find and costly.

Despite a national healthcare system in Peru, there is a shortage of doctors, as well as the financial means to purchase medicine and medical supplies. I work with a growing list of individuals, businesses and organizations to recruit volunteers, medications, supplies and monetary donations.

In 2018, students raised more than $30,000 for the trip, allowing us to bring new medications and supplies for the 2,207 patients we treated. What we didn't use, we left with the Peruvian physicians in hopes that all gets utilized.

Not only do the residents of Peru benefit, but our students receive an array of clinical and research experiences.

We conduct significant research regarding cervical cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among Peruvian women. We help collect samples that identify the human papillomavirus, or HPV, genotypes and work to determine whether the genotypes covered by the Gardasil vaccination are the same genotypes prevalent in Peruvian women with cervical cancer. We also work with a hospital to implement a program where women can be screened and receive information about surgical or medical treatments for HPV.

Improving water quality among Peruvians who live along the Amazon River is another focus area for us. Students often see patients with gastrointestinal infections caused by bacteria and parasites, so we’ve partnered with a local non-governmental organization to monitor and test water quality. Our research team also has designed a filter utilizing local resources that creates a sustainable solution to reducing or preventing water-sourced infections.

Looking ahead, our ultimate objective is to build a 'continuity clinic' where we can have one central place to see patients and store medical records. We also are currently working on a collaboration with the West Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine to offer medical help and services twice a year instead of once a year between both institutions.

The Peruvian government does not direct care, but we involve them in what we are doing. We are welcomed in the community, and we receive hugs and thanks continually. People are so warm and appreciative — it's truly touching.

Years ago, I was passing a newsstand and saw a former student on the cover of a national magazine. The man and his wife had volunteered after a major Indonesian tsunami, traveling to offer medical assistance and any other ways they could help.

I called him to tell him how proud I was. He said his ability to respond to an international call for help was because he had been on a mission trip I had organized many years ago. That really had a profound effect on me — to think that I helped give someone the skills to go forward and help out like that — to go where the need is, no matter where it is or who it is. In many ways, I've saved lives and changed lives through the eyes of my students and our partners.