In summer 2004 my husband, Stuart, and I made our first trip to Peru. We traveled with a charitable organization that hoped to build an orphanage and medical clinic there. Having completed my second semester of nursing studies at the Washington State University Intercollegiate College of Nursing, I was the most medical-savvy person on the trip. But that didn’t stop us from doing a lot of good work. We set up clinics in Iquitos, a port city of about 400,000 residents near the headwaters of the Amazon River, and worked farther downriver in less populated areas with the Yahua and Bora Indian tribes. We were amazed at how little access some of these communities had to medical care.
While we were able to help a number of people on that visit, we knew we needed to go back. So this year, working with WSU nursing faculty members Carol Allen and Deborah Swain, we organized a two-week trip with the help of the People of Peru Project and invited my nursing classmates along to organize day clinics and assist the lowest income communities in Iquitos, far up the Amazon.
The response was so great we ended up with 15 students and three recent graduates, all willing to pay for the trip out of their own pockets. What some didn’t have, they earned through yard sales, fund-raisers and just plain begging from friends and families.
The setting was exotic, with the jungle all around us and the city wholly unreachable by road. But it wasn’t that glamorous. We saw raw sewage in the streets and beneath the houses. One of the most striking neighborhoods was Belen, where the houses are built over the river. Belen’s community bathroom was a plank that led out over the river. All the waste went directly into the Amazon, just 20 yards from where people were bathing and washing their clothes.
We set up health clinics in homes and compensated the families who hosted us with food. On our first day, we saw about 300 people. In total, we were able to reach about 600 families and solve more than a few medical mysteries, like the outbreak of rashes in the neighborhood of San Pablo de la Luz. It appeared these rashes were related to contaminated bathing water. We shared cortisone creams and provided education on boiling water, finding other water sources, and understanding what problems can occur when water is contaminated.
Probably the biggest issue was dehydration. So many people had headaches and dizzy spells. Even though the area was constantly hot and muggy, we figured most were drinking the equivalent of one eight-ounce glass of water a day. One of my nursing classmates, Charissa Graham, spearheaded the hydration outreach, encouraging our clinic visitors to take simple measures like sanitizing drinking water by leaving full plastic bottles in the hot sun.
We easily addressed many basic health issues, such as pregnancy, parasites, bladder infections, and STDs, through education and prevention. When people needed more care than we could offer-one woman had symptoms of tuberculosis-we sent them to the regional hospital. A lot of the volunteers used their own money to cover the hospital charges.
This experience was good for us as nursing students and graduates. You never know how creative you can get, until you’re in the middle of a jungle with no Walgreens nearby and need to come up with a bandage that isn’t going to fall off a child’s foot, even when he’s running barefoot in the mud. The trip also gave us a different perspective on community health from the standpoint of an impoverished population. Forcing us totally out of our comfort zone, it helped us appreciate what some of the patients coming into our hospitals and clinics here at home may be experiencing.
The WSU Intercollegiate College of
Nursing provides opportunities for faculty and students to work
with vulnerable populations in such locations as Belize, Honduras,
Ecuador, Egypt, Ukraine, Crimea, India, and Pakistan. These
faculty-student health care teams are always in need of funding for
travel, food, and lodging, and of donated supplies such as
prescription and over-the-counter medications and basic hygiene and
medical items. For information on how you can help, contact Debbie
Haberman at 509-324-7340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.