‘You always wish you could do more’
Peterson takes medical mission trip to Peru.
Medical services are limited at best for those who dwell in remote jungle areas of northern Peru near the headwaters of the Amazon River.
Most natives there believe vitamins will cure what ails them, along with an occasional potion concocted by local healers.“I knew going in it would be bad,” said Kaitlyn Peterson, a physician assistant student at Union College in Lincoln. “Really, it’s hard to describe because it’s so overwhelming and sad.”
Peterson, a 2006 Gothenburg High School graduate, was one in a group of 20 students and professionals from Lincoln who to traveled to Iquitos, Peru, in June on a medical mission trip associated with People of Peru Project.
Before her first trip out of the country, Peterson said she hoped to make an impact on the lives of people living in one of the poorest regions of the world.
As it turned out, though, it was Peterson who was perhaps changed the most after the 16-day trip.
Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology with a minor in public health from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2010.
In May 2011, she completed her first year of a 33-month Union College program for certification as a physician’s assistant.
“I’ve done a lot of job shadows,” Peterson said, “but never anything like this.”
The mission group included 12 PA students, a doctor, a podiatrist, some registered nurses and a couple of Union College teachers.
They traveled with basic medical supplies in plastic water-tight tubs, setting up clinics in new areas each day.
“Most of the places were run-down buildings,” she said. “It was usually dirty and dark.”
Electricity in most areas was unpredictable so the American group relied heavily on hand-held flashlights.
Some local residents would walk miles to visit the Americans’ clinic.
“They see or hear about white people in the area and they think we’re fantastic, like superstars,” Peterson said.
But honestly, she said, the care offered was quite simple.
During each clinic, the PA students visited one-on-one with Peruvian patients seeking help, usually through an interpreter.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” Peterson said. “I know enough to say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and they would think I could understand everything. The language barrier was huge.”
Ailments ranged from skin rashes to headaches, stomach aches and infections.
“Most of it wasn’t the crazy, severe stuff you might think,” Peterson said. “I guess those people who are really bad off probably couldn’t leave their homes.”
Many of the problems faced by the jungle residents stemmed from parasites.
“Almost everybody has worms,” Peterson said. “They drink a lot of bad water. They do their laundry in the river, they bathe in the river, they drink river water and the river is their trash can.”
Most understand they should boil the water before drinking it, she said, but still they don’t.
Many other patients had problems related to rotten or abscessed teeth.
Although there wasn’t a dentist in Peterson’s mission group, dental procedures were performed at each clinic.
“I wish we’d have kept track of how many teeth we pulled,” she said. “I thought I might get grossed out by that but I wasn’t.”
She also didn’t flinch when she gave her first injection, an antibiotic administered to a man who had stepped on a thorn and had developed an infection in his foot.
“A lot of them don’t wear shoes,” Peterson said of the jungle residents.
The group spent some time in Belen, a section of Iquitos where children and stray dogs run rampant and trash is piled high along streets and walkways.
“I’ve seen homeless people in the U.S.,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t even compare. You get this overwhelming desire to do something.”
Every PA student in each clinic saw between 20 and 30 Peruvian patients per day, hoping to ease a bit of life’s pain and suffering.
Outside of the city, they traveled to less populated areas of the jungle using small canoe-like boats to haul supplies up the river.
“You learn to trust people that you have no idea who they are,” Peterson said. “We knew nothing about where we were going. Thank goodness we had guides who did.”
In the city, Peterson said children were often abandoned, left with no family to care for them.
In smaller villages, though, she said entire extended families lived in small huts built on stilts to withstand changes in water level.
“It is total poverty,” she said. “People there don’t have jobs to earn money to buy things. Their work is simply survival.”
Realizing that jungle people can live in happiness without material belongings left quite an impression on Peterson.
“It’s amazing how much seeing that kind of life can impact you,” she said. “Most of those people have virtually nothing and yet they can see the true joys of life. We are so spoiled here and it makes me realize all that we take for granted.”
Peterson said she returned to the United States a changed student.
“It’s draining, emotionally and physically,” she said. “Now it all seems a little surreal but I know we made a difference, at least for the limited number of patients we saw.”
Leaving Peru with the knowledge that living conditions aren’t likely to change was difficult for Peterson.
“You know that when the 30- or 60-day supply of medicine you gave them runs out, things will go back to the way they were before we were there,” she said.
It is somewhat comforting for her, though, to know there will be other volunteers and other mission clinics.
“There is only so much one group can do,” she said. “You always wish you could do more.”