Two A&S faculty members’ participation in a summer medical mission to Peru had a little to do with serendipity—and a lot to do with their desire to use their talents to help those in need.
The seed for the trip was planted last year when Professor of Nursing Susan Heady met with a former colleague, Dr. Anibal Zambrano. Zambrano invited Heady to take part in a biennial trip in which American-Peruvian doctors who had been trained in Peru gave back to their country by teaching new medical techniques and providing free medical care and surgery to indigent people.
The doctors, members of the Peruvian-American Medical Society (PAMS), are accompanied by other medical personnel and general volunteers, including translators.
Upon learning that another Arts & Sciences faculty member, Associate Professor of Spanish Silvia Navia, had previously volunteered in Peru as a medical translator, Heady decided to ask Navia whether she’d be interested in going on the mission with her. Navia enthusiastically said yes, and a few months later, the two faculty members were working side by side in Cajamarca, a city in the country’s northern highlands.
Walking 100km to See a Doctor
The location in which Heady and Navia were working served 640 patients in four and a half days and was one of two clinics being run by the PAMS mission. (The mission also operated a surgery unit and a mobile clinic and sponsored computer education at two orphanages and a daycare facility.)
The clinic’s patients, members of Peru’s indigenous population, live on a subsistence level in the Andes Mountains. Some walked 100 kilometers and then waited in long lines in order to be seen by a doctor. Heady said the local police had to close off the adjoining street because of the size of the crowd waiting to receive medical attention.
Heady’s responsibilities at the clinic were to assess and document each client’s medical problems prior to treatment by a physician; Navia served as translator for Heady and other nurses. Most patients were adults, Heady said, and most had multiple chronic health problems. Common complaints included back and shoulder pain and poor circulation to the legs. Heady said these problems probably resulted from hard manual labor and carrying heavy loads in the mountains.
Navia, who is from Spain, said she encountered few translation problems with patients, even though Spanish was their second language (their first was Quechua, the language of the Inca civilization). “They have a way of expressing their pains and problems that might not translate literally,” she said, “but with standard Spanish, there is no problem at all.”
Navia relished the opportunity to volunteer with a Webster colleague. “I loved it,” she said. “I admire Susan. She is an amazing professional and human being. I was so impressed by her.”
‘I Wish We Could Do More’
Navia said that early in the clinic, one of the doctors suggested that to save time, the interviewers ask patients what their three main problems were. “I would ask questions while Susan was finishing up with one patient,” she said, “and then I would pass the information to her to write so she would articulate it in accurate English medical terminology.” Navia said Heady’s follow-up questions about ailments were “meticulous” and often allowed her to pinpoint a patient’s problem.
The clinic in which Navia and Heady volunteered had only two doctors, who struggled to keep up with the demand for medical services. The doctors didn’t have time to see some of the people, and others were sent to a hospital for another wait. Equipment was old and supplies were minimal.
In spite of the clinic’s imperfections, Heady said she felt good about what it accomplished. “I just loved the people. I wish we could do more for them, but we do what we can,” she said. “There’s a lot of unmet need, and it’s frustrating.”
Faculty Research Grant in Use
Heady also used the medical mission to conduct research on health beliefs and practices, a study for which she received a 2010 Faculty Research Grant from Webster University. Whenever possible, she and Navia also tried to interview patients for her research. They said their attempts met with limited success.
“The people were reserved or were afraid,” Navia said. “It was hard to ask them questions. Some would not even give their names.” Many patients couldn’t write, she added, and others didn’t know where they lived or what their age was.
In at least one instance, rephrasing a question resulted in a more concise answer. Navia explained: “When we asked the women,‘What is your occupation?’ they would say mi casa, ‘I’m a housewife.’” However, Navia and Heady knew that the women had sources of income, so they started asking them how they made money. “Then the different answers just started to show up–selling things in the market, renting rooms, doing laundry, or cooking for others, etc.,” Navia said.
Sometimes questions generated unexpected responses. For example, they asked a man who suffered from headaches what remedies made him feel better. He said that drinking a mixture of dove blood and beer freed him from his headaches.
In another case, Navia said she managed to break through the locals’ natural reticence and a group of patients gave her abundant information about ancient plant-based remedies that are no longer in use.
Navia said she was particularly pleased to help Heady conduct her research because medicinal use of plants is one of her research interests. Her dissertation was on an 18th-century Jesuit’s natural history of Ecuador.
Heady and Navia both said they have pleasant memories of their volunteer experience and were moved by the gratitude of their Peruvian patients.
In fact, Heady said the appreciation of the people of Cajamarca for the medical help received by their region’s poorest element was apparent from the start. The volunteers arrived at the beginning of July, and the town welcomed them with a Fourth of July parade that starred the American volunteers.