A Week on the Amazon River

This past week, Lisa and I travel to the Brazilian Amazon for a fascinating week on the Amazon River as Lisa participated in medical work in rural areas.

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Our local church, Malibu Presbyterian, takes an annual trip to the Amazon River.  They load up on a large boat and head out to rural villages where medical care is thin or non-existent.  Since Lisa (a nurse) first heard about it, she’s been wanting to go.  The experience was more than we expected.

We arrived into Manaus, Brazil, late last Monday night.  From the airport, we went directly to the boat and started down the amazon.  After a 20-hour cruise down river, we arrived at Barreirinha (about 1/3 of the way to the Atlantic Ocean).

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We woke the next day to cruise through the winding waterways and tributaries of the Amazon.  Definitely a different world than I’ve experience before.  No roads, all river.  Houses stood on stilts to account for the changing river levels during rainy season.

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We arrived at Barreirinha that evening under a golden sunset.  To our surprise, we learned that the medical team would be conducting cleft palate surgeries on nearly 20 kids.  Lisa was quite excited.  A reconstructive surgeon joined us on the boat along with a second surgeon and an anesthesiologist.  They needed nurses and our team brought  six.  We met a few of the kids who would receive the surgery that night at church.

We slept and ate on the boat.  The surgeries began the next morning.  The non-medical personnel from our team participated in several programs for children in the village (vacation Bible school, soccer camp, etc.).  I joined the non-medical group in the morning, then was invited to go to hospital to serve as photographer that afternoon.  This was a rare opportunity–in the U.S., I would never be allowed to enter the operating room, much less photograph the surgery.  The Brazilian government normally would not allow the photography, but since we were a U.S.-based group, they approved one photographer.  The photographer that came along for this purpose got sick that day, so I filled in.  It’s definitely one of the more interesting subjects I’ve photographed.

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The background to the surgeries was particular interesting.  Cleft palate and cleft lip, I understand, is often caused by environmental factors (i.e. a lack of folic acid in a diet).  Thus, you often find them grouped–one remote indigenous village had five young kids suffering from it.  In preparation for the trip, local radio throughout the region put out the word and many people came forward.  In the case of the indigenous tribe, the Brazilian government paid for their 10-hour travel to get to us.  The kids were as young as 3 or 4 and as old as 20, and one woman in her 30s.  Some of the kids had already received the cleft lip surgery, but the clef palate, a much more difficult surgery, had not been fixed.

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The problems with cleft palate and cleft lip are numerous.  Those who suffer from it cannot swallow properly or form a seal with their lips to suck on a straw.  The surgery has immediate health and lifestyle benefits.  Then, there are the cosmetic benefits.  One mother of a boy in his twenties elated that he could finally get married.  But, it gets worse.  In the indigenous areas, we learned, physical deformities can suggest mystical anxieties.  In some villages, the tribes practice infanticide when a child is born with physical problems or when twins are born–they consider the deformity to indicate an evil spirit.  In the case of twins, they believe one twin possesses an evil spirit, but they don’t know which one, so they bury both alive.  For the five tribal kids who came to the hospital, they were ostracized in their community.  In all cases, the cleft palate surgery is undoubtedly life changing.

In total, the medical team completed 18 cleft palate surgeries in 2.5 days.  Most of the days in the hospital were 12 hours plus.  It was a push, but awesome work.  Facilities were sparse.  While the surgeries took place at the village hospital (instead of the on-boat clinic), they had few resources.  The doctors brought all their tools along, including the anesthesiology machines.  Lisa had the unique opportunity to spend a lot of that time in the operating room, helping in ways she would rarely get to in the U.S.  While Lisa spent all her time in the hospital, I got to experience some interesting villages–far far away from roads and modern comforts.  The Amazon is a different way of life.

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The Amazon is a beautiful and wild part of world.  I’ve seen the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, but it was nothing like living on the river for five days.  The villages were fascinating and the people were incredibly kind.  If you get the opportunity to go, take it.  You will not regret it.

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