A group of doctors from Loudoun Hospital Center and the Reston Hospital venture into the jungle of the Amazon every year to tend to the sick.
The group, Doctors Overseas Lending a Helping Hand, was started four years ago by Dr. Richard Casuccio after years of being involved with Interplast, a group of plastic surgeons who travel overseas to perform operations on patients all over the world.
“I first started this group under Interplast in 1992,” said Casuccio. “We focus on Latin America and have a long time relationship in Peru because a lot of the work we do, we can’t coordinate from here, it must be taken care of in the receiving country.”
“There has to be one doctor in the region who works 50 weeks out of the year to screen the patients we’ll treat and take care of them after we’re gone,” Casuccio said. Their contact doctor in the town of Iquitos, Peru, is Ernesto Salazar.
DESCRIBING THE REGION as “one of the most isolated places in the world,” Casuccio said the only way of getting to the town is by boat or plane, most likely a combination of the two. “It’s a one-week boat ride on the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “There are no roads.”
The trip the group of 18 doctors, nurses and support staff took in May focused on podiatry services, thyroid problems, gall bladder removals, general surgery and gynecological work during their 11-day stay, Casuccio said.
Salazar works to screen the patients after word is out that the doctors are coming, trying to determine the cases that will benefit the most and have the best chances for recovery, and prepares them for their surgeries, Casuccio said.
The doctors use the local clinic or hospital to perform their procedures and must rely on local resources to get anesthetics or narcotics like morphine, as it is illegal to import them from the United States into Peru. After their arrival, Dr. Casuccio’s team screens the patients a second time and prioritizes them.
“Ernesto’s done this so often that he doesn’t have to disappoint too many people,” Casuccio said. “Some people camp out for a week, not counting their trip to see him, and go home with nothing.”
“BASICALLY, this is what we all went into medicine to do, take care of people,” said Dr. Jim Gable, an orthopedic surgeon. “The first time I went, I was scared to death, I had no idea what I’d be seeing or doing and no concept of the locations we’d be in.”
There are complications in going to the jungle to perform medical work, he said. “There are certain things you just can’t do there, and you realize the limitations and work within those boundaries. There are also time limitations, we’re only there a little over a week,” he said.
One of the missionaries that works with the doctors, Father Jack, is “a talented physician and missionary, but he always brings a boatload of people with him as a surprise,” Gable said. “You never know what to expect from Father Jack but I really enjoy working with him.”
Gable spent much time operating on children with clubfeet between the age of 14 and 16 months old. “There’s a lot of trauma here that doesn’t have a happy result and a lot that I just can’t help,” he said.
Despite those hardships, Gable said the satisfaction from helping as many patients as possible in a short amount of time is overwhelming.
“I change these kids’ lives and feel great about myself,” he said. “The team is great, these guys are doing this for nothing and it’s very fulfilling.”
“The support of Loudoun and Reston hospitals is incredible. They’re very generous with instruments we borrow, the supplies they give us. The contribution is significant,” he said, not counting allowing the doctors to take the time away from their normal jobs to help out the less fortunate.
Estela Block works with Doctors Overseas by doing paperwork and helping with some embassy matters. A native of Peru, she and Dr. Casuccio met by accident and have been working together for several years.
“He asked me if I had a connection with the embassy because I retired from a job with the federal government,” Block said, who works as a translator for the doctors. “I went to the embassy and help out a lot with the paperwork they (the doctors) need to have filled out to do this work.”
Block goes along on the trip to provide support for the doctors, in addition to being a translator. “I was born in Peru and it’s a wonderful opportunity. I’m able to witness a lot of the operations and see how they work.”
“These doctors have hearts of gold,” she said. “This is a labor of love. The clinic they go to welcomes them with open arms.”
ON AVERAGE, during their 11-day stay in Iquitos, the doctors will see between 70 and 100 patients, depending on how many operating room slots are available at the local hospital. The doctors only make one trip to Peru each year, but Dr. Casuccio sees a potential second trip each year in the not-so-distant future.
“With the world situation right now, it’s a little quirky but it’s so much easier to go north-south with the way customs is set up in the post-9/11 world,” he said.
The cost of sending between 17 to 19 doctors and support staff to Peru for 11 days is around $13,000, Casuccio said. “We have several fund-raisers during the year, but the biggest is our annual barbecue, which raises about $17,000,” he said. The rest of the money goes to minimal operating costs and supplying items for the barbecue. “Someone’s got to buy the pig, you know” he said with a laugh.