NorthBay VacaValley Hospital Emergency Services Nurse Megan Canova has just returned from Bolivia where she joined an “extreme” medical mission with Project Helping Hands. Her team flew into La Paz and the first few days were spent in jungle conditions. They then climbed 16,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. They visited remote villages, providing medical and dental care, as well as health care education, to some 3,000 people. They often slept on the ground and there was no running water or electricity.
Here are some excerpts from her travel journal:
January to March 17, 2009
Preparation: Purchase of proper clothes, proper supplies, proper gifts and a collection of donations from my fellow ER staff and the VacaValley fire crew. The result: one suitcase full of medications, deflated soccer balls, and various gifts for the children. I am ready to “be mentally prepared for the unexpected,” as advised by one of my team leaders.
Only about two hours of sleep on the plane for me, but we arrive early and step out into El Alto International Airport, located just above the city of La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia. At an altitude of 4,061 meters or 13,323 feet, it’s one of the world’s highest international airports. My body’s response to the lack of oxygen is blue lips and feeling short of breath with minimal exertion and my heart beating hard and fast in my chest. I feel better after the descent down into the city of La Paz. Our Bolivian host meets us and we connect with the Bolivian contingent of four physicians, a dentist, and our translators. We pick up a third vehicle and then our team of 26 heads out to descend Death Road. The day of travel is long, on roads by U.S. standards that would be considered quite dangerous. At the end of the day, we encounter a man heading down the hill who recognizes our host, Felipe. His wife is in labor and he needs to get her to the Caranavi hospital. My adrenaline kicking in, we head up to his farm, examine his wife, and transport them to the hospital in time to deliver their child. Then we head to our resting place.
After breakfast of fresh papaya and bananas, hot tea and oatmeal, we listen to a Bolivian culture presentation. In Bolivia, group goals take precedence over personal goals, inequality is assumed in relationships, time is flexible. After lunch a few of my team members and I go exploring and we see children from the orphanage we will later visit. They are very curious, taking pictures with my camera and trying on my sunglasses. They are loveable and precious.
We head out to make a “blitz” stop at a village accessible by foot. The bridge we cross to get there has missing planks of wood and the river running way down below is fast-flowing; it makes you dizzy as you cross. The villagers must find us funny, holding onto the cable on the side and gingerly making our way across. We deliver a first aid bag with supplies and a basic medical book, give some education to the adults, gifts to the children, play with them briefly and then head back.
After a hot day, we cross a huge river in the dark and rain. Our red truck gets stuck on the other side. My team finally makes it to the village at 3 a.m. and we sleep in a walled area next to free-roaming donkeys, horses, and pigs. I am so thankful not to be rained on during the little rest we get!
We spend all day in a village, holding a clinic. The important case of the day was an 18-month-old child without fully developed external ears. Hopeful that he had hearing in one ear, we arranged to get him specialty care.
After a night of lightning and rain, we eat, pack, and head out to meet up with the other half of our team and travel to our next towns. More river crossings, two blitz stops and behind schedule again, we make it to Mapiri for a late lunch. This town has an internet café so I get the chance to e-mail to the U.S. news of my safe arrival. Then we head out to cross the Mapiri River on two “barges” roped together with planks for the trucks to drive up onto. We make it to Achiquiri and sleep in a church with dirt floors, cockroaches and bats inside in the ceiling. Curious children are always peeking their heads in or coming in to watch us.
We start off on a 20-kilometer trip to Michi Playa but end up with our Jeep hopelessly stuck on a precarious road. We’re forced to hike back, and I end up carrying everyone’s things, including our clinic bag with supplies. About 11 miles and 3.5 hours later, and surviving a rain storm, we make it back to Achiquiri an hour before the team would start getting worried and head out to find us.
We rescue the Jeep and head back to the Mapiri River to barge the trucks back over the river before it gets dark. We make it to Santa Rosa by 2100 to our “hotel” for two nights. It has holes in the walls and cockroaches, but there is a room with a cold shower along with a pool filled with green water.
After the rain stops at noon, some of us brave the pool’s cold green water. It is great to swim some laps! That evening we treat two teenage prostitutes who have multiple abscesses, skin infections, lice, and possible secondary syphilis. With a physician in this town, I do not understand how anyone could let a fellow human suffer in this way. Prostitution is legal in Bolivia. I am thankful that we have the drugs in our pharmacy to help them.
On the road again to Pallayungas. The roads this day were worse than Death Road. After many stops to use pick and shovel, we make it to Pallayungas. With the remaining light, I play soccer with the young boys in this mining town and later refresh at the only water source in the town.
In a town with only 10 families, we ended up treating more than 400 patients, including one trauma patient from a landslide accident.
We travel to our last village of Quiabaya and start seeing patients directly. The next morning, in Conchupata, we see mostly Aymara indigenous children. We de-wormed and treated the children and gave reading glasses and multivitamins to the teachers. Our dentist was busy giving Fluoride treatments and pulling teeth. Then down the hill to make house calls to several older Aymara residents. One man has been crawling for the past four years since his legs have become too weak. Another sleeps with guinea pigs under his bed for the soothing and comfort they are said to give. Then back to Quiabaya to meet up with the other half of our team. We head out to Sorata. Sorata!!! A warm shower and pizza for dinner!
Back to the U.S., we receive preventive de-worming, de-licing and de-scabiciding treatments and return to the culture shock of paved roads and more.
I firmly believe that our small, 26-member medical brigade, imbued with humility, sacrificial love, wisdom, and competence, made a difference. And the questions in my head are to re-evaluate this privileged life we live in the U.S. The reasons that motivated me to participate in a trip like this remain, but I am a different person for the experience. It certainly helped me re-examine my own life and what is truly important.
– Megan Canova, RN