Wed, May 23, 2018 08:22 AM
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue

Helping hands in a far away land

01/05/2007 - On the edge of the Amazon jungle, medical care doesn't come easy, or often.

WHILE IN PERU, members of a local medical mission worked with many patients who had never been to a doctor or dentist. Dr. John Furcolow, second from left, was one of 11 Americans who traveled to a village on the edge of the Amazon jungle to offer medical aid to people who rarely have access to any kind of health care. Contributed photo (click for larger version)
"We saw people who had never seen a doctor before. Some of them walked for up to eight hours, through the jungle, to come and see us," said Dr. John Furcolow, one of 11 American volunteer medical missionaries who traveled together to a remote village in Peru last year. "These people are used to providing for themselves."

Even though volunteers try to prepare first-time visitors for differences in lifestyle and culture, Dr. Furcolow said Americans typically have to see the situation firsthand to understand it. With no electricity or running water, the doctor said patient care took on a new meaning.

"There's no insurance, no charts and no equipment," Furcolow said. "It's just you and the patient, like it was 150 years ago."

INFECTED WOUNDS WERE a major problem for many of the people cared for by local medical mission workers on the edge of the Amazon jungle in a remote Peruvian village. The medical missionary team, which included 10 local volunteers, tried to provide for the spiritual needs of the people they treated, as well as treating their wounds and illnesses. Contributed photo (click for larger version)
Nearly everyone they worked with in Peru lives in "dire" poverty, the doctor said. Adults and children as young as eight years old typically spend most of their day foraging in the jungle for food sources, including wild pigs and monkeys, to supplement the more readily available fruit in their diet, he said. As a result, there were many machete wounds among those who lined up for a chance to see the doctor. Infected wounds, he explained, were among the most common problems they encountered.

Many of the medical problems they encountered were easily treated with antibiotics, the doctor said. Penicillin and Amoxicillin were especially effective, he said, because the people in Peru have never taken those compounds.

There were times when the medical team and their patients agreed there was nothing they could do to help. Dr. Furcolow said that was certainly the case when they examined a pregnant 11-year-old girl.

"If everything goes well for her, she's going to be 12 years old when she delivers," he said. "There's no social services, no W.I.C., down there. There's nothing we can do, medically. We do pray with them."

The team, which included 10 local volunteers and another from Florida, saw 817 patients in four days. Their patients' needs ranged from treatable problems such as high blood pressure and arthritis, to the unexpected, including cuts, terrible rashes, burns and rape. The team took more than $150,000 worth of medication and more than $10,000 worth of supplies with them, Furcolow said, and left their unused supplies and medicines behind when they headed home.

Furcolow said the need for medical care in remote parts of Peru could be frustrating.

"A lot of people ask if we were frustrated by things we can't fix — like the pregnant 11-year-old. The thing that's really frustrating is when it is the last day and there's still 250 people out there in line," he said, later adding, "Anything we can do will help."

Along with their medicines, the Americans carried a message of hope. Dr. Furcolow said spirituality "was left to the individual" and delivered in a non-denominational manner. Even though prayer was strictly optional, the physician said 100 percent of the patients he worked with agreed to pray with volunteers before leaving the makeshift clinic.

"A lot of them are spiritually hungry," he said. "I do pray for each patient and try to make a connection to spiritual life. In six years I have prayed with every single patient. One hundred percent of them said 'yes' when I asked them to pray with me."

A prayer room, staffed by Peruvian people, was set up as the final option for people whose medical problems were beyond the mission's capacities.

Dr. Furcolow said the spiritual aspect of the journey was extremely important for the team's volunteers.

"It would be a real tough week if you didn't believe in something bigger," he explained.

Leisure time is limited when your day revolves around survival. Dr. Furcolow said people living in the Peruvian village they visited appreciate any entertainment they get.

"There was no electricity or running water, so you are up and down with the sun," he said. "Missionaries brought movies and a generator at night and the entire town would turn out."

The doctor said a $3 toy from Wal-Mart was one of the most popular items.

"I took a giant soccer ball down there and the kids had a blast with it," he said, noting the ball was respectfully returned to their doorstep every night.

Team members took several trinkets with them, including glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and bubble solutions.

"Blowing bubbles, they think that's magical," he said with a warm smile before cautioning, "You have to be careful with the magical stuff."

He explained that many of the comic book characters beloved by American children, such as The Hulk or Spiderman, are considered evil in Peru. Toy cars and trucks, he said, tend to be more appreciated by children there.

Sunglasses were also well received in Peru, he said, because nearly everyone has to work in the harsh light of the jungle. To their surprise, Furcolow said children's sunglasses were most desired by adults.

"We took some Ray-Bans down with us, but they didn't want those. They liked the more colorful sunglasses made for kids," he said with a chuckle.

Along with Dr. Furcolow, the mission trip was made by Vickie Conley R.N., Diana Ward R.N., Methodist minister Lenny Marr, Dr. Ulises Vargas of Florida, Nurse Midwife Mildred Sizemore, Nurse Practitioner Pam Parker, pre-nursing student Jane Combs, pharmacist Reed Volk, pre-med student John Murphy and volunteer Keith Williams.

Furcolow said another team will be heading for Peru in 2007. Anyone who wants to support the cause can help, he said.

"They can do a lot of things to help. They can go. We encourage people to get on the e-mail list. They can always help us by getting glasses, toothbrushes and toothpaste. They can buy vitamins. They can sponsor an individual, which costs about $1,300. There is no administrative cost with this. Each person takes care of their own expenses, or has a sponsor to do that. People can use their support as a tax deduction and all of their money goes to this cause," he said.

For more information about the medical missionary effort, contact Vickie Conley R.N. at or call 606-789-8624.

Appalachian Regaional
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