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August, 2013

Yanamono

For those of you who have asked, are asking, or will some day want to ask - what am I doing here, anyway? - here's an approximate idea.

I am a Wisconsin girl born and bred, with a few years' time out in Kentucky and Tennessee. I went to medical school at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, graduating in 1984. I completed additional training in Internal Medicine, also in Madison, and am board-certified in that specialty. Then I went into a small group practice a few miles up the road in Prairie du Sac.

In February, 1990, I came to Peru for the first time, for what I thought was just a vacation. There was to be one week at Explorama Lodge, then one week to see Cuzco and Machu Picchu. At the end of the first week, however, I didn't want to leave the jungle. Even after seeing Machu Picchu and getting back home to Wisconsin, I still didn't want to leave the jungle. So, after some faxing and phoning and letter-writing and much patient assistance from Pam in the Explorama office, I came back to Peru, to the Explorama Yanamono Lodge, in June, 1990, armed with my stethoscope, my oto-ophthalmoscope, a small microscope, a bottle of pre-natal vitamins, a few doses of antibiotics, and a three-month leave of absence from my Wisconsin practice. I spoke no Spanish, and I knew there was no running water, electricity, nursing help, pharmacy, x-ray, respiratory therapy, medflight, etc., or etc. Explorama was kind enough to give me a discount rate on my lodging and to throw in the use of a room in one of their thatch-roofed houses for me to use as clinic space.

At the end of those first few months, it was even harder to return to my former life in Wisconsin (which incidentally I had always loved; if I had been seeking an escape, I had certainly not been aware of that). Explorama stopped charging me for room and board after only one month, and has fed me, housed me, arranged for my local transportation and my international communications, and been my family in Peru, ever since. I take care of their tourists when the need arises, but my main reason for being here is to help the local people, who have little other recourse to medical care. This is a goal of which Explorama has been consistently supportive.

For anyone unfamiliar with the area, let me explain that the Lodge is 80 kilometers (50 miles) downriver from Iquitos. That's one and a half hours in the speedy aluminum boats that Explorama now uses, although when I first came here we traveled in more picturesque but slower thatch-roofed boats that made the downriver trip in two and a half hours, but took four hours to return upstream. That's still better than what is available to the local people, which are "river taxis," boats which chug along slowly (at least as long as they don't break down or run out of gas, both fairly common occurrences) and stop for anyone who wants to get on or off, and take from six to eight hours to reach Iquitos. Or one can paddle one's dugout canoe, the local equivalent of the family car, for sixteen to eighteen hours. Needless to say, there is no ambulance service (and definitely no helicopter evacuations).

The nearest other doctor in this area is in a Peruvian government-run clinic, halfway between here and Iquitos. When I first arrived, that small medical center had neither doctor nor nurse, and even now they do not always have the medicines the doctor wants to prescribe. For fancy stuff like x-rays or lab studies, one must go to Iquitos.

Seeing as the competition was minimal, my practice grew. By the time I was back in Wisconsin for a visit in late 1991, I was seeing about 100 patients a month, almost all of them poor, acutely ill, and with no other available source of medical care. On that visit home, I was interviewed by Jean Feraca on her Wisconsin Public Radio program. Following the broadcast, a man called the radio station and identified himself as Jon Helstrom, an architect and a member of Rotary Club, from Duluth, Minnesota. He was intrigued by what I was doing. Now that I know him better, I realize that he was itching to organize a project, and I had the incredibly good fortune of becoming the lucky beneficiary. After Jon made a couple of preliminary visits here, he convinced his Rotary District to send a crew down to Peru to build a 30 by 60 foot clinic, complete with well and solar panels, on the bank of the river, about 15 minutes' walk from the Lodge. While they were at it, they also built me a two-room thatch-roof house on the Lodge grounds so that I finally had my own place to stay (though of course I continue to depend on Explorama for food, social life and transport).

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