By Dr. Chris Charon
ENT Surgeon, Worcester County Church of Christ, Massachusetts
“So… when are we going to make this trip happen?” read the e-mail from Dr. Kevin Broyles.
Kevin is the Country Director of HOPE worldwide Bolivia and he had invited me multiple times to come help with some of the medical and educational needs that HOPE strives to provide for Hospital Arco Iris. Upon realizing that there would probably never be a perfect time to travel, I decided to gather some medical equipment and make the preparations for the trip.
Upon landing in La Paz, I could immediately feel the physical impact of the high altitude. I was humbled to be so out of breath by simply pulling my carry on luggage behind me! I continued to feel humbled as I quickly got to know the local Bolivian people, as well as the amazing servants who moved from the USA to serve full time in Bolivia. From the moment they picked me up from the airport and throughout my entire stay in La Paz, their inexhaustible hospitality, patience, and attention to detail inspired and challenged me.
During my week in La Paz, I had the opportunity to use my training as an Ear Nose and Throat surgeon to see patients at Hospital Arco Iris, the General Hospital, and a facility called The Burn Clinic. Witnessing the intense medical needs and the overflowing gratitude of the Bolivians brought me to tears several times. “Thank you for taking the time to listen to me, doctor” and “Gracias, gracias, doctor!” were expressions I heard from every patient and family member. Many of them waited for hours in over crowded waiting rooms after having traveled for hundreds of miles just to get an appointment to see me. Even when I could not help them, they expressed gratitude for the short time that we spent together. One woman rearranged her whole week when she heard that I was in town. She traveled from La Paz to Chile to pick up her granddaughter and bring her back in order for me to examine her. I personally have never made even a fraction of this type of sacrifice in order to be seen by a doctor in the USA I expect and take for granted my access to healthcare. Again, I felt humbled. Before coming to Bolivia, I thought that I was the one who had sacrificed a lot in order to come and serve the poor and needy…yet these people were putting forth far more effort to even have the hope of obtaining healthcare. There was never a complaint for the long, uncomfortable hours of waiting, just an overwhelming gratitude for even the opportunity to be seen!
I am equally inspired by all of the well trained, compassionate, and hard working surgeons that I worked with. I was privileged to work with Dr. Wilma Benavides, a devoted plastic surgeon, who after serving the poor for 30 years in the State Run General Hospital, decided to continue serving by creating The Burn Clinic in La Paz. I was also honored to work with two ENT surgeons, Dr. René Zabala in Hospital Arco Iris and Dr. Del Carpio in the General Hospital. These doctors work tirelessly to provide excellent and compassionate healthcare for the poor.
My entire trip was amazing from beginning to end, and attempting to convey the experience in a few words is tough. Yet, I’ll close with one of my most memorable encounters…
I met a 13 year old boy who could not talk because he had a fresh tracheostomy. He and his two siblings are orphans, living in the streets. He was admitted to Hospital Arco Iris after finding out firsthand about some of the violent hazards of joining a gang. He wasn’t my patient, I simply got to hear his story and witness how determined Noelle Broyles was to lift his spirits. “Guapito!” she shouted as she entered his room, carrying a stack of books for him to read. “¿Cómo estás, mi amor?” This greeting was followed by a huge hug that never really ended during the entire time she was in the room with him.
He needed that hug as much as he needed the air moving through the tracheostomy tube.
I needed to see that hug to learn how I could connect with my patients, rather than just treating their physical problems. That experience alone was worth the price of the airline tickets. This might sound a bit dramatic, but if you had been there, you would understand. In fact, in order to understand, you will have to visit La Paz.
“ So… when are we going to make this trip happen?” 🙂