By Mike Safley | February 11, 2010

Mission Mas Grande

Quechua Benefit’s first medical mission, involving primarily physicians, began when Dr. Dwight Bailey and his wife, and registered nurse, Deborah approached Mario Pedroza at the 2009 Futurity Show and Sale. The Baileys are veterans of multiple missions to Africa, India, and South America. The proposed a similar mission to Peru. The charity quickly agreed to help organize and support the trip. A team of 15 volunteers was assembled with lightening speed and all of them arrive in Lima on three different flights around midnight on November 6, 2009. It may sound simple, but coordinating two teams, working at 6 different clinic locations, speaking 3 different languages, at 12,000 to 16,000 feet above sea level is anything but.

Dr. Bailey, who is to be ordained as a Christian Minister when he returns from Peru to the United States, takes charge of clearing the thirty bags of medicine through Peruvian Customs in Lima. It takes two hours and Dr. Bailey’s signature and fingerprints pressed in blue ink on countless documents before we emerge from customs into the misty morning air. Each person carefully shepherds two bags full of medicine, which have been donated to or purchased by Quechua Benefit—$250,000 worth.

The team loads the medicine into a bus and heads to the Hotel Melodia, Peru’s version of a Motel 6. After a quick shower they return to the airport for a 5:55 am flight to Juliaca. With no sleep, the group is quiet as they board the plane.

Dr. Bailey and wife Deborah head up the mission team, which meets eleven more local participants, led by Dr. Willy, Quechua Benefit’s full-time dentist, in the airport parking lot. The Peruvian group is made up of interpreters, drivers, and more mission volunteers from Arequipa. The baggage, medicine, and team members are quickly divided and ushered onto two buses. One heads for the Michell farm, Mulkini, and the other to Pacomarco, owned by Grupo Inca. The team has been up for more than twenty-four hours when they reach their destinations at 2:00 pm on Saturday afternoon. We will be reunited four days and four towns later for a trip to Macusani. After fourteen years of dental missions to Peru, this was Quechua Benefit’s first medical mission and their largest to date—twenty-six members. The Mulkini team is made up of doctors Mary Beth and Jim Anderson, Dwanda Emmons, Lindy and Mirian Huber, and Ursula Munro. Dwight, Debbie, Jessica Sullivan, Sean Hommel, Rhonda Deschner, Marilyn Nishitani, and Dr. Willy head for Pacomarca. All have paid their own way to Peru.

Ursula Munro, a registered nurse from Maine, has always wanted to volunteer for a Quechua Benefit mission. As the bus bounced along the road from Mulkini to Muani, where the first clinic will open, all Ursula can think is “what if no one shows up?” Eight straight work days, six clinics, and 2,216 patients later, Ursula is bone tired, her unwarranted fears forgotten.

The second team unloads their gear at Pacomarca, ten minutes from Llalli, a small town visited numerous times by Quechua Benefit’s dental teams. The new mayor has built a huge edifice, the municipal office, which is crowned with a glass dome standing three stories above the simple adobe buildings that make up the rest of the town. The dome glows a surreal blue in the nightscape of the highlands. But during the day, its top floor becomes an intake lobby with three exam rooms, a pharmacy, and staircases full of patients. Outside, a banner proclaims the medical clinic. The team labors from morning to night seeing 816 patients in three days.

Back at Mulkini, the volunteers tear down the Muani clinic, pack the equipment and store the medicine on the bus. The next morning they are off to Picotani, one of the largest alpaca co-ops in Peru. Their herd numbers 50,000 alpacas and they also manage 5,000 vicuñas behind miles of ten-foot-high fences. The co-op headquarters are approximately two-and-a-half hours up the side of a mountain from Mulkini. The team sees more than seventy-two co-op family members who mostly speak Quechua and live much as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Only the occasional motorcycle or 4-wheeler betrays any modernity.

The next morning finds the Mulkini team at Mira Sol, an orphanage operated by the Michells and supported by Quechua Benefit. There is a steady stream of children from nearby schools and adults from the town across the river. That night, the two teams gather at Pacomarca. In the morning they begin the climb to Macusani where they will visit Don Julio Barreda’s estancia and conduct a three-day clinic at the town’s hospital.

The group rolls up to the front of Accoyo at 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday. Elena Barreda and her sister Guadalupe meet the team, saying they had never seen so many gringos on one bus and certainly not at Accoyo. The farm tour begins with the suris, then the huacaya females, and finally the Plantel males. The sight of so many exceptional alpacas can cause even the most experienced eye to dilate.

Marcus Whitman, the construction manager for Casa Chapi in Chivay, brought his shears for the occasion. The group selects a five-year-old male to shear. A betting pool soon forms, each bettor contributing one dollar and a folded piece of paper with a guess as to the weight of the fourteen-month-old fleece. Marcus hooks the shears’ cables to the truck battery. Accoyo’s cowboys crowd around as the alpaca is stretched out and held with rope handcuffs.

The fleece explodes off the shears. Someone asks if they can change their bet. “No chance,” says the crowd. Thirty minutes later, the fleece has settled down on the scale, and the metal weight comes to rest on twenty-one pounds. Daryl Gohl had guessed 21½ pounds, but Lindy Huber was closer at 21 pounds 5 ounces. She was all smiles as she folded the one-dollar bills into her fleece jacket.

The group of awe-struck alpaca breeders switches tasks to become doctors and nurses once again. They set up a pharmacy and begin to see eighteen of the Accoyo cowboys and their children. Marilyn Nishitani, who is a nurse practitioner in New Mexico, teams with Rhonda Deschner, a pediatrician from Texas. They speak softly to their patients in English, and Inti a translator from Arequipa translates the English to Spanish, Elena Barreda translates to Quechua, and so it goes in reverse. Many of these Quechua patients rarely see a doctor, and the cost puts medicine outside their reach.

Earlier in the day, the patients had been chasing down alpacas, rushing up the hill to bring another group of animals for the gringos to see. A casual observer would pronounce these farm hands fit and healthy. But under the gentle, but persistent, questions of Marilyn and Rhonda, they reveal headaches, stomach aches, leg pain, rapid heart beats, and back problems. One man had been dizzy for more than five years. The ear scope reveals fluid behind both ears and scars on his ear drums. He is given antibiotics, antihistamine, pain medicine, and a worm pill for his aching stomach. Next, a fourteen-year-old girl with worms, neck pain, and a reddened throat is examined; more medicine is prescribed and delivered.

By the time the team leaves Accoyo and arrives in Macusani they have set up and torn down six clinics. Deborah Bailey, CEO of Family Health Care Associates serving about 25,000 people in the Appalachian Mountains, inventories the drugs and files the patient intake forms each evening. She also supervises the pharmacy crew of Dwanda Emmons, Jessica Sullivan, Lindy and Mirian Huber, and Daryl Gohl. Both Dwanda and Jessica work at the Bailey’s clinic in Southwest Virginia.

That night, before the clinic opens in Macusani, Dwight, Willy, Daryl, and I slide furniture into four separate exam rooms where Dr. Bailey, Dr. Rhonda Deschner, General practitioner Marilyn Nishitani, fourth-year medical student Sean Hommel, Dr. Willy, and Dr.’s Jim and Mary Beth Anderson will see patients. Next, we clear out the pharmacy space, unload the medicine, and set up the waiting room chairs. A tent is erected outside, where patient intake forms are filled out by an interpreter and Ursula and Jessica will record blood pressure, and weigh the patients before they see the doctors. It’s ready.

No mission trip is without an “uh… oh… moment,” and our November Mission Mas Grande has its first one as we check into the hotel El Dorado in Macusani just after dark on the sixth day of the trip. The two stars on the sign should be a clue, but the rooms themselves are proof positive. This is not the kingdom of gold from the ancient Peruvian myths. One room has no toilet but does have human feces on the floor. When the problem is pointed out to the proprietor, he argues that it is not human feces. Upon hearing this, Deborah Bailey is uncharacteristically speechless. In the rooms with toilets, they are seat less. Cold water is standard in most of the rooms with baths. The men on the trip spring into action. They locate a clean facility and move all of the women to a new hotel. As mothers often say, all’s well that ends well.

I remain at the Hotel El Dorado, where I have one of my more interesting Peruvian experiences. About 1:00 am, I awake from under seven alpaca blankets that are failing to keep me warm. As I shift to a more comfortable and hopefully warmer position, I feel something fairly heavy, of unknown origin, at the foot of my bed. It shifts in response to my movement. Not quite sure what has just transpired, I wait a few moments to become fully awake. As I roll over again, so does my anonymous companion. Trying to remain calm, I panic instead, kicking with both feet from the prone position. Splat, thud, hissing, and scratching follows; cats, rats, guinea pigs, skunk, and foxes crawl through my mind. I can’t remember the last time I had rabies shots. I resolve to remain perfectly still and not visit the banyo only ten feet away. Hours later, the morning light creeps through the window. I peek out from under the covers—the room is clear. I don’t look under the bed.

The trip, by any measure, was a significant success. The value of the teams’ services in US dollars was at least $212,200 (2,212 patients at $100 per patient), and the retail value of the medicine dispensed exceeded $250,000.

One doctor examined ninety-five patients in one day—the trip’s unofficial record. The oldest clinic visitor was ninety-three years; the longest walk to attend a clinic was five hours by a sixty-year-old man. The last patient, seen on the last day, arrived at 8:00 am and was seen as it got dark that evening.

The prize for the strangest home remedy was given to a patient who told one of the doctors that when her stomach ached, an old Quechua woman told her to drink her son’s urine. She did, and said “I vomited great white worms out of my mouth, but it still hurt”.

The Quechua women wear skirts and sweaters layered over more skirts and sweaters. This makes it difficult for the nurses to take blood pressure readings and for the Doc’s to find their way to bare skin with their stethoscopes. Mary Beth Anderson began counting the number of skirts on her patients. The record was ten; not counting the alpaca knit long johns.

The real measure of any mission is very hard to calculate. How do you put a price on hope? Is there a way to measure the good will generated by volunteers from places so distant that it is incomprehensible to the local Quechua people? A Quechua mother approached me to say thank you during a November dental clinic in Llalli several years ago she said, “My daughter told me her tooth hurt back in August, I told her, don’t worry, the gringos will be here again in November.” For parents who have to wait months before their children can be rid of an aching tooth the gringos are a welcome sight. The poverty of the people seen on these missions is sobering. Many of them are the very people who cared for our alpacas before they came to the US.

The other side of the coin is the corps of dedicated volunteers who put their lives on hold, head off to the uncertain reality of altitude sickness, dysentery, strange food, long days, and roads with potholes from hell, and respond by sharing everything they know. Why do they come home so full of love and happiness for the experience? Why has Ursula Munro, and Deborah Bailey already volunteered to return in March of 2010 for a clinic in the Colca Valley? Once you volunteer you know why.

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