To most, a week in Ecuador may mean a terrific vacation filled with beaches, spas, zip lining and other tourist attractions. My trip to Ecuador was also a truly wonderful and memorable experience, but not quite the same as most. My trip was a “family vacation,” but we certainly were not a typical tourist family. My son, who is an engineer, and I used our time off to volunteer, and in a most unlikely vacation spot.
Our trip began, like many, by flying into Quito, the capital of Ecuador. But from there, we took a three-hour bus ride to Shell, Ecuador, followed by a 45-minute flight on a small plane to a banana field, where we then boarded a dugout canoe and traveled 45 minutes to a small village in the Amazon.
The trip to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador was part of a volunteer mission with Flying Doctors of America. We truly were in the jungle. In the remote villages there were no roads, showers, stores, electricity, cars, or places to plug in your cell phone. People traveled by walking (bare-footed) with machetes through the jungle or on the Amazon river by canoe. We ate simple food that was gathered or hunted (mostly fish) each and every day, as they had no refrigerators to store food. We left the comforts of home to “rough” it a bit for a good cause.
Flying Doctors of America was started in 1990 as a way to provide medical care and support to the poorest areas of the world. Today, Flying Doctors has flown more than 200 missions and provided free medical care to over 185,000 men, women and children. Flying Doctors has served people in Mexico, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, India, Africa, South East Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia), China and Mongolia.
I have personally been part of missions to Peru, the Solomon Islands, and Haiti. I have gone on these trips with many of the same dentists and physicians. We have learned how to travel together, deal with adversity in low resource areas, and share our medical knowledge to treat people.
In Ecuador, our team would canoe to different village of the Amazon each day. It could take sometimes 2 hours to reach a village. Our team was comprised of an OB/GYN, a surgeon, a pediatrician, a dentist, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), a gastroenterologist, pharmacists, nurses and engineers. We all brought our own medical supplies as these villages had little to no supplies of their own. We set up clinics under huts each day, and sometimes would have to “build” our own shelters or equipment. The locals were always eager to help us “create our clinic” – in fact, in one village they made tables just for our visit. We were always greeted by smiling and eager faces.
At each stop, we treated villagers for a wide variety of ailments including malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, tooth decay, skin infections and lung disease. Surgeries were performed all day long through the use of power generators. Since they bathe only in the river, the children are “dirty” and more prone to skin infections, fungal infections, insect related diseases, and sores. The villages are dusty and children have more asthma, breathing problems and more eye issues due to the dust. Upon leaving each village, we donated medical supplies to aid in their continued health.
What struck me most about this experience was the strength and perseverance of the women and mothers of the villages. Mothers of the world all seem to have the same concerns. They all want their children to grow up and be healthy.
These mothers have few tangible luxuries. Their homes are grass huts with few to no walls. They cook meals for large families over fires and sleep with their families every night on the ground. They carry babies on their backs as they carry wood. They have no bottles or formula and breast feed their children in slings as they weave baskets and gather food. But they are strong women, and they have the support of family and their community to raise the next generation.
How was it that my son and I went to Ecuador? Last year, when I asked my son what he wanted for Christmas, his reply was, “Take me on one of those mission trips again.” So this trip to Ecuador was my son’s Christmas present. He has gone on previous trips (he has been part of our non-medical support team, helping in different ways: in Haiti, after the earthquake, he brought injured people off helicopters and swatted flies in the operating room) and liked them so much that he wanted to do one again. We bond when we go on these trips together. And the native families love to know that my son is with me and while I am a doctor, I am a mom as well.
I feel truly privileged to help the people of these countries. I plan to continue this work and will travel to Kenya in November 2013 where we will serve several remote locations in Africa. We probably will see one thousand people a day including children suffering from severe starvation.
Our team is already preparing for our trip. As medical providers, we need to get specific vaccines before we go, study the needs of an area, and buy appropriate medical and other supplies. Because we need to be “light weight” for our private planes and canoes, carrying the medical supplies in our duffle bags, we try to bring few personal belongings. But I believe we leave a lot of blessings and caring behind.