Beyond our borders: A medical mission to Peru
Written by Brandon C. Carr, MD, FAAP, FACEP, Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physician at Arnold Palmer Hospital
“That’s a keyhole bladder,” he said as he adjusted the ultrasound probe across the Quechua woman’s 34-week pregnant belly. “This baby has posterior urethral valves.” As a physician who’s worked in impoverished countries for over 40 years, he knew what that meant.
I have taken care of many children in the emergency department with this problem, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it on an ultrasound. Without dialysis, the child will die in his early years of childhood of kidney failure, and there are no dialysis machines in Cusco. We discussed this as the woman lay there on the shaky wooden table, completely oblivious to our conversation. She smiled her humble Quechua smile and through a translator asked if her baby was a boy or a girl. My heart broke, and I got a sick feeling in my stomach as I thought of the news I would have to tell her.
I stalled as I asked God for the words to say to her. The makeshift clinic was filled with activity - doctors and medical students talking with patients, Peruvian children running around and laughing. A skinny, stray dog suddenly ran through the clinic and was quickly chased off by some locals.
“Your child is going to die, ” I said. As soon as the words left my mouth, I was prepared for the tears, the emotional outburst, the wailing that I hear so often in the pediatric emergency department when I have to deliver bad news. Instead, the woman simply nodded her head in acceptance. It wasn’t because she didn’t care, but because she knew that having happy, healthy children with a hopeful future is a dream not afforded to most Quechua people. I prayed for her and her baby, and she left the clinic.
This is just one of many stories I experienced during my two weeks in Cusco. I had the privilege of taking a group of thirteen medical students from the University of Central Florida and a few other medical providers to Peru this summer. We went along with a team of physicians, nurses, and medical students from Georgia to meet up with a team of medical missionaries, lifelong friends of mine, who now live in Cusco. These five families left the American dream to serve the underprivileged people of Cusco and to mentor medical students there.
The Quechua are descendants of the Incas. Cusco was once the center of the great and mighty Inca empire. I found this hard to believe when I saw the Quechua people - broken, oppressed, and humble. While most of them spoke Spanish, some of the elderly only spoke Quechua. They were easily recognizable, with their colorful clothes and fedoras.
We set up our clinic at various locations, including La Fuente, the full-time clinic established by the American missionaries. Each day, different stations were set up including triage, provider stations, pharmacy, lab and wound care, ultrasound, and gynecology. Physicians worked closely with students and taught them as they saw patients. A variety of medical specialties were represented including pediatrics, emergency medicine, anesthesia, internal medicine, orthopedics, ophthalmology, family medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology.
I was particularly excited to have medical students with us on the trip. I remember my first medical mission trip. After completing my first year of medical school, I was pretty miserable, and I was uncertain if I wanted to return the next year. All medicine meant to me was cramming for anatomy tests and professors lecturing me about the insurmountable problems facing our health care system. Becoming a doctor didn’t seem worth all of the effort.
My three weeks on the Amazon River changed all that. For the first time in my medical training, I felt alive. Providing medical care to people who would otherwise not have it was very satisfying. And while I thought that the main reason I was going on the trip was to help people, I was not prepared for the impact it would have on my life. I saw a side of medicine that they didn’t teach in medical school.
Fourteen years later, I am now leading students on medical mission projects. It is exciting for me to take students overseas, to see their eyes opened, and to see them experience the same things I did when I was in their shoes. You never know the impact it can have on your life and all the possibilities one trip can lead to down the road. Here are the thoughts of a few of the students who went this summer. . .
“Peru opened my eyes to the true calling of a physician, not only to treat patients medically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.”
- Ron Mercer, 1st year medical student
“The experience really allowed me to refocus and change the way I see myself in medicine. I really believe that I will remember this trip forever and I cannot wait to go on another one!”
- Melia Hernandez, 1st year medical student
“I have been thinking quite a bit about the trip recently, especially now that I have a direct comparison to healthcare in the United States. I feel very grateful to be involved in the provision of healthcare as it is clearly a universal need. On the trip, I realized that a patient, no matter where he or she is from, has the same vulnerabilities to illness as any other patient. We treated the same aches, pains, and sicknesses in Peru as we do in Orlando. And while we may have not completely cured our patient's ailments, we eased their suffering and showed that we care for them.”
- Steven Bright, 3rd year medical student
A short term trip can have a lifelong impact on the one who goes. The way I practice medicine, both in the states and overseas, has largely been shaped by the things I have learned on mission projects. And every year that I go, I am always taken back to the reason I went into medicine in the first place.
I want to extend the opportunity for trips like this to others in the Orlando Health system. There will always be a need for doctors who want to use their skills in underserved areas and to be a role model for young doctors in training.