A Song of Fever and Cold

*NOTE: This post includes events from June 1-2. As usual, the names of the babies from El Hogar Juana de Aza have been changed for the sake of privacy

“A tree to solve the world’s problems.” If infomercials existed in the 17th century, that’s exactly what they would’ve said about the quina tree. Native to Peru, this flowering plant was an ancient remedy for muscle tension and uncontrollable shivering. After the Spanish conquest, however, the quina tree was brought to Europe as a miracle cure for malaria. And I say “miracle” unironically. Quinine – extracted from the bark of the quina tree – singlehandedly eradicated malaria across Europe. Needless to say, organic chemists had a field day.

I received my first glimpse into Peruvian medicine from Dr. Alejandro Camino, the anthropology professor who spoke to us on Monday and Tuesday. In 2 two-hour sessions, he detailed the complex history and cultural evolution of his country. But what struck me most was the story of the quina tree and its contributions to modern medicine. (In case you haven’t guessed yet – yes, I am premed.) So I hurried home to ask my host brother about the current state of medicine in Peru.

Fernando Acuña Reynoso – if you recall – is a doctor currently studying for his medical reevaluation exam. In the next three months, he intends to receive certification to practice medicine in Brazil. Based on his experiences in medical school and during his internado (the Peruvian equivalent of a “residency”), he had a lot of insight into modern Peruvian medicine. First, he was quick to point out, “Hay mucha corrupción en los hospitales peruanos (There’s a lot of corruption in Peruvian hospitals).” I raised my eyebrows in surprise but remained silent, allowing him to continue. “Hay una hoja de información que llenas como paciente. Si, por alguna razón, no caes bien con la enfermera, ella puede destruirlo. Y, cuando llegue el doctor, te va a regañar para no llenar la hoja – aunque tú lo hiciste (There’s an information sheet that you fill out as a patient. If, for some reason, you don’t get along well with the nurse, she can destroy it. And, when the doctor arrives, he’ll scold you for not filling out the sheet – even though you did it).” I could not believe my ears. I had always been taught to trust doctors and nurses – in fact, I aspire to become a medical professional myself. Naturally, Fernando’s reflections about corrupt nurses and destroyed records threw me for a loop.

My host parents had still more information to add. Mama Yony told me that there is a new hospital being constructed in Cusco. The good news? It’ll be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including a helicopter to transport patients in critical condition. The bad news? It’s being constructed by a wealthy Brazilian company rife with corruption. Papa Fernando agreed wholeheartedly. Oftentimes, he added, affluent international companies take charge of health-related construction in Peru. With political power and monetary wealth to back them up, they do just as they please. As Jafar says in Aladdin, “Ever heard of the Golden Rule? Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

Unfortunately for those who don’t have the gold, situations can quickly escalate from tenuous to critical. On Wednesday morning, I woke up to a phone call from Mily. She asked me if I could begin my volunteering shift early – at 10:00 am instead of at 2:00 pm. When I inquired why, she replied that an emergency had come up at the Hogar Juana de Aza. Baby Jacob had contracted pneumonia and had been rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

That was enough to wake me up. I sprang out of bed, got ready as fast as possible, and arrived at the home a minute before 10:00 am. There, I found Maruja waiting for me. In light of Jacob’s hospitalization, she was anxious to preempt health concerns for the other children. And so we made our way to the nearby health center, with three coughing and sniffing babies in tow.

Only one of the three little patients received immediate care. Baby Belle and her mother entered the examination room, followed by Maruja. The other two mothers, meanwhile, had to make appointments for that afternoon.

Maruja emerged from the exam room looking more stressed than I had ever seen her. She strode towards the elevator beside the nurse, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Her tone was anxious and frustrated in equal parts: “Tratamos de cuidar a los niños – pero son once, señora. ¡Son once! (We try to take care of the children – but there are eleven, Miss. Eleven!)” What with Baby Jacob in the hospital – and Babies Belle, Gabe, and Angie coughing incessantly – it was no wonder that Maruja felt overwhelmed.

Upstairs, another nurse prescribed Baby Belle a medicine to alleviate her cold symptoms. Maruja turned to me and explained, “Si tenga dinero, pago por las medicinas. Pero, si no, debo pedir a una de las hermanas (If I have money, I pay for the medicines. But, if not, I have to ask one of the sisters/nuns).” I grimaced in sympathy. Her words tore through my mind again: “Son once, señora. ¡Son once! (There are eleven, Miss. Eleven!)”

“How,” I wondered, “is this sustainable?” It’s common knowledge that children tend to contract sicknesses more often than adults. Their immune systems are less experienced, and they’re far less discriminatory about whom and what they touch. Now, put eleven babies into a small environment with few resources, and – well, what else could be expected?

Madre Consuelo confirmed the gravity of the situation. “No tenemos bastante recursos para las medicinas de los bebes (We don’t have enough resources for the babies’ medications),” she said. “Por eso, necesitamos donaciones para las medicinas (For this reason, we need donations for medicines).” That’s one reason why I’m currently setting up a website for the Hogar Juana de Aza – to publicize the organization, recruit volunteers, and bring in the donations necessary for the babies to live healthy lives. In the short term, though, we need to stock up on tissues and vigilantly maintain healthy habits. As per the Starks’ motto in Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.” Oh wait – it’s already here.

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6 Responses to A Song of Fever and Cold

  1. Srinivas Devgaonkar says:

    From what you write, I find you are now getting exposed to real world, where poverty, illiteracy, unhygienic atmosphere and living are part of life. You will notice people survive under such conditions under great strain. They also find joy in small things. Essence of family life, living for others, sharing their joy and sorrow, seems to be part of life. I am happy you are seeing other side of the world. Human spices are wonderful, they adjust themselves. One has to think what is our role to uplift the society.

    • Riya Dange says:

      I completely agree, Aba! I feel like I’ve learned a lot about local and global realities after coming to Peru, and I definitely hope to play as much of an uplifting role as I can 🙂

  2. Neeta Kapoor says:

    Another great read, Riya. We are so far removed from the day to day struggles these people have to face. You are getting first hand experience that no text book can teach you. Keep up the great work you are doing. So proud!

    • Riya Dange says:

      Thank you! 🙂 It’s been an amazing experience so far, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be

  3. Sangeeta says:

    Another good one Riya. Proud of you for reaching out and helping those who need it. Keep up the good work.

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