PULLMAN, Wash. — This week, a local emergency physician is leading a group of students from Washington State University, University of Idaho and the University of Washington down the Amazon River to provide medical aid to Peruvian villagers.
Dr. Jim Clark, an emergency medical physician at Pullman Memorial Hospital, left Aug. 10 with a team of 15 students and five health care professionals on a week-long medical campaign to Iquitos, Peru.
The medical students are participants in the University of Washington WWAMI Medical Student Training network, which is named after the participating states, Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The main objective of the program is to educate primary care physicians within rural communities, said Brenda Helbling, the senior administrative assistant to the UI WWAMI Medical Education Program. WSU students participating in the program are Heidi A. Abersfeller, a pre-medical student from Kennewick; Lisa M. Cannon, a pre-medical student from Rapid City, S.D.; and Kristin M. Danke, a pre-medical student from East Wenatchee.
Clark will take four WWAMI students, one nursing student and 10 pre-medical students on the medical mission.
Seven medical professionals will also join the team. Clark will travel with five other doctors and an emergency room nurse. Bridget Clark, a former high school Spanish teacher, will serve as a translator for the group.
In Peru, there is no medical insurance offered to the residents, so if people want medical care they typically have to travel two to three days, and they have to pay prior to receiving the treatment, Jim Clark said.
This system means many Peruvians go without routine health care. Jim Clark said the mortality rate for children in Peru is between 30 to 50 percent.
In fact, it is difficult to get parents to provide a name for a child under 5 years old, he said, because parents wait to see if the child survives before giving it a name.
Peruvians suffer from common ailments, such as poor nutrition, dehydration, sore throats, viral infections and cuts, he said. The small problems, however, quickly turn into medical problems because the Peruvian people do not have regular health care and common health safety standards are not typically followed. Additionally, more severe health problems, like malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, and worms, plague the villages.
The medical team will travel the river and set up clinics in the villages that range from 250 to 3,000 people. The team sets up the clinic around 6 a.m., and keeps it open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a two-hour break at 1 p.m. The team will continue this schedule for four days before it returns to the United States.
The team will see an average of 500 people in one day, Jim Clark said. “Even the busiest emergency department in the country probably doesn’t see 500 people in one day,” he said.
For the medical students, it is an incredible chance to practice under supervision, he said. Each medical student will see about 400 to 500 patients during the week, he said.
This is an amazing opportunity, since doctors typically need to see 100 normal ears before they recognize an abnormal ear, Jim Clark said. A medical student cannot get this type of exposure to patients in all four years of medical school in the United States, he said.
Adam Barrus, a first year medical student in the WWAMI program, said he hopes to gain some hands-on clinical experience. He hopes it will supplement his college education and he believes the experience will benefit him when he applies for residency.
The undergraduates will help serve as translators and will work in the pharmacy writing and filling prescriptions. They may also help the dentist and help with the day-to-day affairs of the clinic. Some may have the chance to listen to lungs and hearts, Jim Clark said. One of the most important things they will do is observe the practice, Clark said.
The pre-med students will get an opportunity to determine if medicine is the proper career for them, Jim Clark said. The experience will also help support undergraduates in their pursuit of medical programs, Helbling added.
When Jim Clark first began making these trips, he sought adventure.
When he returned from his first excursion down the Amazon River, however, he was overwhelmed by how destitute the villages had been. He had seen the villagers use simple tools to catch food and watched as one group of villagers continued to row in a half-sunken canoe.
Then he realized the people in Peru are probably happier than 90 percent of Americans, he said. They may lead a simple life, but they are happy, Clark said.
He said there is also a lot that occurs during the medical missions that is not directly related to medical care. For instance, children can attend school in the village if they have a uniform and a pencil. Many children cannot attain such luxuries, he said, so the doctors and students take pencils and pens in an effort to help the children attend school.
Jim Clark now believes he is fulfilling a duty. “I realized when I go, briefly, I can really change their lives,” he said, “not just with medicine but with ‘life’ things.” He hopes to pass on this enthusiasm to the WWAMI students, he said.
The trip is coordinated with help from the Evangelism Task Force. ETF is a non-denominational Christian organization, Jim Clark said. It provides medical missions to provide the villagers with health care while also conducting ministry missions.
Since ETF has been traveling to Peru, the child mortality rate has somewhat stabilized around 30 percent, Jim Clark said. ETF also has installed some wells in the larger villages; most of the villages have no electricity or flush toilets.
Jim Clark has previously accompanied other health care professionals on similar medical missions. He traveled to provide medical aid to Peru in 1999 and 2000, and in 2001 he traveled down the Orinoco River in Venezuela. He is also going to Mamba, Zaire, in September for two weeks.