Over the course of one week, a group of medical professionals, students and volunteers from Bryan and College Station treated 233 patients in the high jungle of Peru as part of a medical mission trip coordinated by First Presbyterian Church of Bryan.
They worked through language barriers and accessibility to help people, from teaching them about the best sources of calcium to helping a child with cerebral palsy walk for the first time.
The local church’s association with the South American country’s Evangelical Peruvian Church Project began seven years ago when Marilyn Maynard Wright and Trish Burk visited to find ways to serve.
The first mission in 2013 was constructing a seminary and transitioned to a medical focus once the seminary was complete.
After all the years of traveling 15,000 feet over the mountains and back down into the high jungle, Wright considers the people near Quillabamba, Peru, family now.
“I have developed relationships with these people,” she said. “… They have names. They have faces and names, and I know them. I’m friends with them.” She does not speak Spanish, but they use translators, gestures and charades to communicate. “I love those people. I love going there. I’ve been there seven years. We go the same route, stay in the same places, eat the same food, but I love going there. I look forward to it every year. That’s just, those are my family.”
In only the second year of the medical mission, some people returned from last year, but some were new faces for the medical team.
For some Peruvians, it meant walking for hours just to try to get on the list for the day, Texas A&M pharmacy student Jordan Hampton said.
While the Texas team was there to educate and treat the Peruvians, she said, they learned from their patients, too.
“I realized having the newest phone or something like that really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Some of these people, they have dirt floors or something, like they’re walking hours and hours to come see us to hope to get on the list because we only were able to see 60 patients a day.”
Wright called the experiences heartwarming, saying, “They’re so grateful that somebody will listen to them, that somebody will check them out, even help them or even care. It’s very heartwarming.”
Part of what made the trip successful was the group of translators, such as Texas A&M student Anaelli Rodriguez, who helped the medical team best treat and help the patients.
The struggle, Blinn College physical therapy student McClay Chesters said, was that there was a second language barrier, with the much of the older population speaking the indigenous Quechua language.
“So, you have to have a translator to go from Quechua to Spanish and a translator from Spanish to English, so it’s like playing a game of telephone,” she said.
Rodriguez called it a humbling experience to be a part of the mission trip, this year marking her third year to go.
“Having the capability of being that mediator between the doctor and the patients and helping them to tell their story is so amazing, because there is language barrier, but it can easily be taken care of,” she said.
Dr. Van Ngo said all the teamwork and collaboration she saw during the last week of May gives her more faith in humanity.
“You don’t see this all the time,” she said. “You don’t see this teamwork; you don’t see this cultural bridge. This is a great way to learn it, and I think it all makes us better people, humble people.”
One of the new faces was a 2-year-old girl who was carried in by her mom. After being seen by Ngo and the physical therapists, the team identified cerebral palsy and let the girl use a small pediatric walker they had brought.
She had never walked before; she stood up with the walker but was apprehensive about walking forward, Chesters said.
After seeing her older sister use it, though, “sure enough she started walking, and then as soon as she got the hang of moving it, she was walking literal laps around our treatment area,” Chesters said.
Christy Gantt, a physical therapist and Blinn College professor, said those moments are what make the mission trip so worthwhile and why she returned this year with a new group of students.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “Amazing in terms of what we get to do for the people there, and it is just for me it’s just so fulfilling and so much fun to watch my students. They just excel. They do wonderful. … They give of themselves. They have such compassionate care, they have such big hearts, and they get in there and they do everything they can for everybody. They get to see a different kind of medicine than they’ll ever see in the United States. … It makes you happy. It makes me happy.”
That compassion and empathy is what Gantt and Ngo, both of whom have been on both medical missions, hope the students take with them from the experience.
“I want them to be excited about helping people, building bridges, being sensitive to other cultures,” Ngo said. “It makes them great people. When you see your own patients later on, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh I know that. I remember that. It just makes for a nicer world and not get caught up in the medicine and the career and the job. You have to do that now, but I want you to be excited about doing it free and just helping.”
No matter a person’s status in life or their background, Gantt said, everyone deserves compassionate care.
“We’re all created equal and we all deserve good care and compassion from others,” she said.
Burk said the entire experience was “heart-opening,” calling it a “God thing” that they were led to this particular mission.
“It’s been lovely,” she said. “I’m really glad that I was fortunate to be in this place at this time to be able to do that, and they’re so grateful. I think one of the things that’s impressed me so much is how grateful they are for people to take time out of their lives — Americans to fly from such distance — and actually go for them, not because we want to get anything, but because we just want to extend a hand of friendship and help in any way we can. That’s been wonderful.”