Do-good docs’ mission to Peru full of surprises, satisfaction
His name was Jefferson and he was a three-year-old boy who had “special needs.” When Dr. Eric Sung saw him, he quickly realized that autism wasn’t Jefferson’s only problem. No less than 15 of his 20 baby teeth were badly decayed – and he had been waiting for help for three days with his mother and year-old sister.
Jefferson and his mother.
Sung, a clinical professor in the UCLA School of Dentistry who specializes in treating people with special needs, extracted the boy’s infected teeth. They were full of cavities long left untreated, because Jefferson lived in a remote, mountainous region of Peru, which Sung visited this past September as part of a 60-member humanitarian team.
Called Hearts With Hope Foundation, the team of dentists, surgeons, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, resident doctors, nurses and volunteers spent three weeks this past September caring for children (and a few special needs adults) in and around the city of Arequipa in the southern part of Peru.
About 50 of the team members were from UCLA, which has been participating in the foundation’s humanitarian efforts since 1997, largely by donating equipment and supplying most of the manpower.
The foundation made a special effort this time to reach Peruvians in remote areas. Team members visited 14 orphanages and schools in and around Arequipa, where they examined or treated more than 1,500 children. This included 40 with heart conditions which required cardiac catheterizations and surgeries.
“Pediatric heart surgery had never been done before in Arequipa,” said Dr. Juan C. Alejos, a professor of pediatric cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine who is Peruvian by ancestry and the foundation’s founder and president. “We are developing a five-year commitment to such places where we go well beyond band-aid interventions and even teach local doctors.”
Many of the children Alejos and his colleagues came across required heart surgery, belying Arequipa’s reputation, in the words of a 16th-century Spanish traveler, as “the healthiest and pleasantest place to live,” thanks partly to its temperate climate.
“Most of the children we saw would have been operated on by one year of age if they had been living in the United States,” Alejos said. “We saw 15-year-olds on whom nobody had ever operated before.”
When Sung first visited Peru in 2007 as part of Alejos’s team, he was “really taken aback – in certain places there was minimum care,” he said. “I remember seeing a kid with food all over his mouth, munching on Doritos. These children are getting more and more junk food and don’t have the means to brush their teeth.” Because oral infections also contaminate the blood, they can adversely affect the heart, he explained.
Dr. Eric Sung (wearing mask) and colleagues perform dental work.
Alejos was also astonished at the lack of dental care. “I thought Eric would have nothing to do,” he said. “Then he came back with a huge jar of [extracted] teeth.”
This past September, the team examined or treated an average of 300 children daily – 435 children was the record in a single day. Team members would split up into two groups – one evaluated the patients and set their appointments for the following day, while the other team worked on treatments and surgeries.
Getting around wasn’t easy. There’s only one hospital in Arequipa and it has only two elevators. “I got winded climbing stairs,” said Sung, explaining that part of the reason for that was the city’s rarified air at an elevation of some 8,300 feet.
Taking no lunch breaks, the team worked late into the evening. “Our goal was not to be idle,” said Sung – and the aim was largely met. On a visit to the town of Pedregal, near Peru’s capital of Lima, the team was inundated with patients, mostly farmers. “I think the whole town showed up that day,” said Sung.
On other days, precisely the opposite happened. Once, Sung traveled to a community to offer his services “but the parents didn’t want any care,” he said. Another day, the hospital in Arequipa was devoid of patients because the city was hosting a “special Olympics.”
By far the most exasperating experiences for Sung and his colleagues came just before they were scheduled to perform surgeries. Many patients failed to follow doctors’ advice not to eat or drink during the morning before an operation. Asked if their child had followed the instructions, parents would typically reply, “‘Oh yes, he didn’t eat or drink – he just had a small breakfast,’” recalled Sung.
But the stoicism of many of the children also came as a surprise. “Some of the children had a high threshold for pain,” said Alejos, adding: “For kids who don’t get to eat everyday or don’t have much, maybe that’s how it is.”
Many of the children dismissed suggestions that their appalling dental conditions might be painful. “You talk to them and they say, ‘yes, it hurts, but only when I eat,’” said Sung. “And when you ask them how long it’s been hurting, they say, ‘Oh, for the past year or two …’”
Orphanage for girls.
One of the most wrenching experiences for Sung was at an orphanage for girls in their early teens. One of them told Sung she had nine siblings. “I asked how old they were and she answered they were all six to 10 years old.” It turned out that none of them were the girl’s blood relatives – they were all orphans who had been under her mother’s “emotional care.”
To raise funds for its outreach mission in Peru, the Hearts With Hope Foundation organizes an annual silent auction as well as relying on donations. Volunteers and donors can go to http://www.heartswithhope.org/
to sign up. This year, the auction raised $43,000 – less than 30 percent of the $135,000 that the 2008 mission cost (that was one reason why some of the volunteers had to pay their own travel costs, which they gladly did, explained Sung). One of the prized items at the auction was a basketball donated by UCLA Athletics, replete with the handwritten signatures of the 2007-08 campus basketball team.
The satisfaction that comes from helping the needy is often hard to adequately describe in words, but one way to express it is as a mutual bond that professionals develop through shared experiences.
“When we see each other in the hallways, we can’t talk to each other without the word ‘Peru’ coming up,” said Alejos. “It’s good for morale – you hit the ground after returning and you’re already thinking what you’re going to do better next time around.”