Healing, Teaching, and Learning During a Trip to Peru

Carolyn and Rick

In March, my daughter, Carolyn, and I had the magnificent privilege of traveling to Peru to participate in a surgical mission trip organized by the Peruvian-American Medical Society.  We joined several doctors from the Chicago area, one of whom, Dr. Juan Angelats, was my main teacher and mentor in surgery. Two residents from my plastic surgery training program at Loyola University were part of the team as well.

I returned to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, and a place I had visited for a similar mission 22 years ago as a senior resident in plastic surgery. It is a beautiful but economically challenged city located at the base of a nearly 20,000 foot volcano named El Misti.  From the operating room, we also had spectacular views of other mountains in the Andes on clear days.

Our task on this trip was to work with patients with significant scarring secondary to old burns, usually as the result of some sort of accident.  Adequate burn care is not available in much of the country, and several of the patients had taken bus rides of between six and 12 hours to come see our group. We operated in the burn unit at a large government hospital where patients appeared to wait all day long for their appointment.

One of our favorite patients was a small three-year-old boy named Santiago. His mother, Flor, had brought him in for correction of scarring on the palm side of his index and middle fingers, which he developed after grabbing exposed electrical wires. We were able to remove the heavy scars and repair the area with skin taken from his hip area, thereby allowing him to fully extend his fingers again once healed.

I had the chance to teach the two residents a few of the tricks I have learned in the 21 years I have been practicing surgery.  I also learned a few more tricks from my recently retired mentor, Dr. Angelats, who still seems most at home in an operating room.  The best picture of the entire trip was this “Three Generation” photo showing my teacher on one side of me  and the young surgeons in training on the other.

This mission was also the first time I had ever taken my daughter to “work” with me. Burn reconstruction can be a bit bloody, and she did great, not even coming close to passing out or throwing up!  She posed under the picture that seems to hang in every South American operating room I have ever visited.  Jesus appears to have forgotten to put on his surgical mask.

After the completion of our time in Arequipa, Carolyn and I traveled to Cusco City, high up in the Andes mountains, and then to Machu Picchu, the center of the Inca Empire 800 years ago.

People in Cusco find many different ways to eke out a living, from weaving beautiful textiles on a hand-held loom, to renting out their baby alpaca for pictures. We spent two days in Machu Picchu itself, a stone city carved into an extraordinarily steep mountainside. Travelers from the Pacific Northwest and the local llamas did not mind the rain and fog on our first day there, as it made for some nice photos.  Neither did we complain about the bright sun on our second day when we hiked 1000 feet vertically up Waynapicchu, an adjacent mountain which afforded spectacular, if not somewhat frightening views of Machu Picchu. Given my fear of high open places, the picture makes me look a great deal more comfortable than I actually felt.

Journeying to a foreign land, especially a developing country such as Peru, makes me appreciate just how fortunate we are in the United States of America, at least from the standpoint of material wealth. My daughter and I did see very clearly though that mothers love their children just as much in Peru as they do here in the United States, and it really doesn’t take much “stuff” to be happy. We are grateful to have had this wonderful opportunity.

  • Hand loom near Machu Picchu
    Hand loom near Machu Picchu
  • Carolyn and operating room picture
    Carolyn and operating room picture
  • Three generations of surgeons
    Three generations of surgeons
  • Treating burn scarring on Santiago's hand
    Treating burn scarring on Santiago's hand
  • Santiago's mother, Flor
    Santiago's mother, Flor
  • Santiago
    Santiago
  • Patients waiting for treatment
    Patients waiting for treatment
  • View of the Andes from the operating room
    View of the Andes from the operating room
  • El Misti
    El Misti
  • Arequipa, Peru
    Arequipa, Peru