This morning we were up at 5:30 to meet with Carmen Pampa´s doctor who is also a professor at the UAC. We loaded up his truck with medical supplies and he went to wake up the sleepy nursing student who was slated to help for the day. Chela proved us all wrong- she wasn´t sleeping in, she was already on her way, obviously not a slacker as she´s the head of her class in the third year of the nursing program.
Every sunday Dr. Zavaleta brings a nursing student with him to run a free clinic in one of the communities of the Yungas, the mountainous rural region that the University calls home.
This day we bounced around in the back seat for 3 hours to get to tiny Suapi, which lies next to Tocaña, one of the Afro-Bolivian communities of the Yungas (the communities were established long ago with the forced migration of african slaves, generally brought to work the copious Bolivian mines. More on this l
ater-We´ve been invited several times to stay there for a weekend or so). Chela is one of seven UAC students that come from Tocaña, so she is familiar with the area and with Suapi.
The doctor begins unpacking boxes of pills and gauzes and syringes in an abondoned building in the plaza ofSuapi, a town about the size of Carmen Pampa(about 40 families). Immediately there is a line formed outside the door, and Chela starts documenting the names, height and weight of the various patients. We got some good footage of the doctoring, of course we felt like we were invading the privacy of the patients, but no one even noticed us, and the other patients all chip in with their advice for the problem being explained to the doctor. Pants are dropped and shots are given, babies cry, and we get the very rare opportunity to see what the underwear of the traditionally dressed chola women looks like. I admit I had been curious what all of the mass under the layered dresses consisted of, now I know.
Children with massive infections are treated and some older people need translators to explain to the spanish-speaking doctor their symptoms that can only be expressed in the native Aymara.
A crying teenager timidly approaches me and tells me that her mother needs the doctor right now, that she can´t breathe. Once brought to the doctors attention, we jump into the truck with the girl directing us to her home. We run down a zigzagging path to an adobe house tucked into the jungle, and Victoria´s mother is sprawled in the doorway hyperventilating. Victoria can´t hide her fear and paces about shedding worried tears. Once the mother is calmed down she explains thaat another daughter had caused her to lose her temper by trying to claim a mule that belonged to the family was actually hers. The doctor patiently listened and gave her some sedatives and told her to calm down or she would have serious health problems in addition to her stress.
We drove back with a visibly relieved daughter and the doc resumed doctoring. Skipping lunch, the doctor attended to everyone in the extensive line that loosely wound out the door. Meanwhile Jason and I got footage of the doctor and of Chela, who was impressive in her professionalism. We also interviewed some of Suapi´s population, a shop owner who had been the first in line and some older gentlemen who clearly frequent the bench outside the shop. There was also a particularly talkative Chola woman drying her coca leaves in the sun who gave a great interview about the need for medical attention in Suapi, located over two hours from the nearest hospital, and whose residents can´t afford the ambulance or the medical attention given there anyway.
She also couldn´t help but launch into a scathing monologue about how much she mistrusts the politicians in the area and in the country, who always just "use the campesinos" for thei
r votes and then never look back.
After the 3 hour ride back to Carmen Pampa and interviews with the Doc and Chela, we unloaded the truck at sunset that had been loaded at sunrise. The Doc claims that the Sunday trips don´t usually take thirteen hours. He also split up the bananas and papayas that had been given to him by the community to say thanks for all of the free medical attention.
All and all the day was an encouraging display for the future of the area, but with ugly realities about the public health and malnutrition of the Yungas also revealed. Chela´s development in medical practice and the doctor´s altruistic commitment to the rural people remind me once again of the positive mission and effects of the university. It promises to contribute to an evolution of social change in the region and country, and correct the underlying problems of a lack of political representation and fair services and opportunites for the Yungueños.
Of course, seeing traditional underwear of elderly Indian women was also very rejuvenating.