My first day with the Cinterandes Foundation we left for a trip to Palmer. The large truck with an operating room in the back had left the day before and we traveled in a small vehicle. This trip was my first time out of the Andes since my arrival a month earlier. We drove the Cajas National park where llamas run down the middle of the highway and alpine lakes dot the landscape before we began the decent; the humidity and heat increasing and the vegetation changing from alpine to tropical with every turn of the road. The houses also changed from concrete Spanish houses to wood houses on stilts with hammocks on the porches.
Palmer is a small pueblo of less than 2000 people on the Pacific Ocean and most of the people there are considered very poor by Ecuadorian standards. There is a public health clinic run by a German born nurse who finds cases appropriate for these trips and pre-screens the patients so that when we arrived all that was to be done was review lab results, EKGs, and perform quick physical exams.
Two patients were turned away because of fever and one because of irregular heart rate. The patients need to be carefully selected so that there are minimal complications with recovery because the PACU consists of cots in the clinic and the team leaves at the end of the week. Dr. Rodas calls all patients to insure that they are recovering well, but this system works best when there are minimal complications. Sometimes the surgeons travel with a family physician who sees patients while they operate. However on this trip the team included Dr. Rodas and Dr. Sacoto, two well experienced surgeons.
Dr. Rodas founded Cinterandes because he felt that Ecuadorian doctors could help their population just as traveling Americans could. He was inspired by the ship Hope and trained in the US but was born and raised in Ecuador. Dr. Sacoto, the other surgeon is the dean of a medical school in Cuenca. During the ride to Palmer he and I had a long conversation about evidence based medicine and the pedagogy of medicine. There was also Dr. Anita the anesthesiologist and executive director of the organization. Her role on the trip made me think about anesthesia in a whole new way. She not only anesthetized patients from 5-76 years old and with everything from local nerve blocks to general anesthesia but also serves as an extra set of unsterilized hands in surgery helping with everything from preparing the patient (cleaning) to helping set up the laparoscopic equipment.
In Ecuador anesthesiologists are at a premium. Dr. Cruz, the pediatrician I worked with in Riobamba is trained as a surgeon but works as a generalist because there is no anesthesiologist at the children’s hospital. While working with the ob/gyn and head of the department in the public hospital in Riobamba, we had to wait two hours for an anesthesiologist to arrive so that he could operate. In addition, Dr. Anita is involved in primary care, coordinating rural rotations for medical students.
The final physician was Dr. Valasco who, like many physicians in Ecuador, is working as a physician before residency and after his year of rural service. He serves as the scrub tech but also does much of the pre- and post-operative care.
Like the physicians, the two other staff members had multiple jobs. Freddy knows where absolutely everything is on the tightly packed truck and throughout all the surgeries the doctors often shouted, “Freeeeeedy” and he would appear from nowhere and supply the necessary item.
The final members of the team were us 6 American medical students (there are usually also Ecuadorian students but they had final exams). We assisted in all surgeries and helped with pre- and post-operative care.
There seems to be 2 purposes to these trips. First and foremost, the foundation truly believes that it is far more humane to provide surgeries, for carefully selected patients, close to their homes so that they are spared the expense of travel and the trauma of time away from their families. Many of our patients needed these surgeries and would not have received them without this foundation.
But students, both foreign and Ecuadorian, also play a role. Not only do we bring labor, supplies, and funds to the organization, but the team of doctors all clearly enjoy teaching and explicitly encourage students to learn how to provide humanitarian medicine (for example instructing us on how to tie knots so as to spare suture). It is a symbiotic relationship in which the students gain important skills and the team gains extra hands to help with the work.
The surgeries performed were hernia repairs, lipoma removals (lipomas are benign tumors that can be disfiguring and painful), and lots of cholystestectomies. Cholystestectomies are common here, not only because of the frequent occurrence of gallbladder disease, but also because gastric cancer is common here (more common than colon cancer in the Andean region). In fact, endoscopy of stomachs rather then colons are the preventative tests of choice here and choystestectomies for symptomatic patients are considered part of prevention.
We worked for 3 days operating from 8 in the morning until long after dark and then rounding on patients recuperating in the clinic. Many of surgeries were laproscopic and, save for the fact that the drapes and gowns are cotton rather then disposable paper and the conversations being in Spanish, you would never know you were outside the U.S., let alone in the back of a truck.
It was a privilege to work with physicians helping their own people in this unique and creative way. The Cinterandes team is traveling to the Sudan this year to help establish a similar truck there. Hopefully the idea will catch on because it is a great way to utilize urban specialists to help poor rural populations without the need for expensive infrastructure development.