Medical Relief and Disaster Preparedness Mission to Peru Builds Partnerships

Medical Relief and Disaster Preparedness Mission to Peru Builds Partnerships

By Geraldine Cook
January 10, 2013

Five years after a devastating 8.0-earthquake shook the southeast coast of Peru, killing 540 people, injuring more than 15,000 and displacing over 40,000, U.S. military medics and civil engineers returned to the region this past summer to provide follow-on health care, civic assistance and disaster preparedness training.

Five years after a devastating 8.0-earthquake shook the southeast coast of Peru, killing 540 people, injuring more than 15,000 and displacing over 40,000, U.S. military medics and civil engineers returned to the region this past summer to provide follow-on health care, civic assistance and disaster preparedness training.

“This project is what people here have been praying for,” said José Pepe Girao, of the Chincha municipal government for a Peruvian village where a reconstruction project took place during the mission. “It will improve the lives of many who have been suffering and it will bring them together.”

The U.S. Department of Defense also played a supporting role in the immediate response to the August 15, 2007 earthquake, sending medical teams to provide health needs assessments and urgent care in coordination with Peru’s National Institute of Civil Defense (INDECI), the State Department, USAID and international NGOs. Some of the rural and mostly poor areas heavily affected by the earthquake’s epicenter in Pisco and Ica on the coast, and populations that felt reverberations as far inland as Huancavelica in the Andes mountains, are still recovering to this day with reconstruction incomplete and people continuing to rebuild their lives.

About 500 U.S. military health providers, engineers and support staff returned to these areas last June-August to provide medical relief and disaster response training. As part of an annual U.S. military humanitarian outreach mission to Latin America called “New Horizons” aimed at building enduring partnerships with different countries in the region, the U.S. Air Force, Army and Marines and the U.S.-based NGO Project Hope worked collaboratively with Peruvian military medics and engineers and local civilian doctors to provide primary, dental and minor surgical care to the local populations while rebuilding clinics and clean water lines.

Within Ica, U.S. and Peruvian military engineers collaborated to construct a community center with a clinic, library, auditorium and playground in Tambo de Mora, and a clinic addition in Independencia that will offer OB/GYN services and a 24-hour ER to 15,000 citizens. Both areas were hit hard by the 2007 earthquake. Girao said thousands of people were displaced in Tambo de Mora, which was struck by an ensuing tsunami, and will benefit greatly from the new center. Rotating groups of U.S. Air Force medics and Project Hope medical volunteers also provided free health care at 11 locations in the Ica region for 2-4 weeks at a time.

In addition, a 40-person U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support Health Response Team set up a mobile field hospital on a soccer field in Huancavelica to treat several thousand patients over a month. Working at 13,500 feet above sea level in the blustery winter air of the Andes mountains under a strong sun that turns locals’ cheeks bright red, U.S. and Peruvian soldiers unloaded pallets from trucks that had driven 11 hours up winding roads to reach the field. They worked tirelessly as a team, unpacking boxes and assembling their contents into a 22-room, 6,300-square foot linked network of medical tents. “For us, it was something amazing…the deployment of the containers and the rapid installation of the tents, and basically the immediate start of medical services,” said Dr. Jackson Sanchez Ponvalasa, a Peruvian surgeon and director of Huancavelica Hospital.

Medical treatment included general, pediatric, internal and family medicine, as well as orthopedic, gynecologic, eye and dental care. Announcements went out in advance to inform local residents interested in receiving care, and Peru health officials made final determinations on which patients were selected for surgeries. “(Peruvian) dentists are working with (the U.S.) Army and Air Force and they’ve been able to learn from each other’s experiences,” added Lt. Veronica Perez, U.S. Army Operations Officer for the 228th Combat Support Hospital. “They are providing the quality care that they need.”

Educational Exchange Strikes Chord

Perhaps the greatest impact of the mission was a disaster preparedness and health education exchange that included several joint training activities at various sites in Pisco from Aug. 1-10. The exchange was coordinated between INDECI, the U.S. Air Force, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the U.S. embassy. It included a course on emergency communications systems, an exchange of lessons learned from previous natural disasters that had occurred in Peru and West Virginia, a basic light structural collapse search and rescue operation, and first responder, basic and intermediate first aid courses. The first aid course was so popular that a second one was held and U.S. Air Force medical personnel taught a train-the-trainer course in basic first aid to Peruvian military medics, who then taught two classes to 230 participants with U.S. medics just observing and assisting where needed.

The training was a great success in partner nation capacity building and INDECI officials were excited about the turnout and interested in holding similar courses in other areas of Peru. Rolando Benavides, INDECI Disaster Risk Management Specialist, likened the training to a pebble thrown in a lake. “Ripples of preparedness will spread out wider through the region as people teach each other the skills they’ve learned,” he said. “Each time they pass on the information, they will expand the ripple until all of Peru’s first responders share in the knowledge and are more prepared to respond to future disasters. The people of Pisco were greatly affected by the 2007 earthquake and still feel the importance of staying prepared.”

Maj. Gen. Fermin Vera Flores, Sanitation Section Chief of the Peruvian Air Force, also praised the value of a two-day basic flight medicine course held on Pisco Air Base and hopes additional exchanges like it occur in the future to help Peru recruit and retain more flight medics. “The experience is very motivating,” he said. “It’s permitted us to learn about certain situations that (the U.S.) encounters that we’ll be able to utilize, too. We’ve learned about ophthalmology problems, spatial disorientation, which will serve us later on. The human factor is very important, and the pilot should be completely ready and in optimal condition to fly.”

Dr. Ponvalasa said U.S. doctors likewise learned from the exchanges by seeing Peruvian patients at Huancavelica Hospital and offering opinions about treatment and follow-up care, while Peruvian doctors gathered knowledge about U.S. procedures for the same pathologies. For example, U.S. Air Force International Health Specialist Maj. Brian Neese watched a Peruvian doctor perform a surgery on a parasitic hydatid cyst, which is common in Peru but not in the U.S. Maj. Neese wrote in a local newspaper that he will remember his Peruvian colleague should he encounter such a cyst and will know how to treat it.

Early in the mission, Dr. Ponvalasa said his perception was that it was going to be “external help,” but that quickly changed as the close collaborations developed. “The sharing of experiences have made us seen the U.S. not only as a country where there is technology, development and a lot of movement, but it is also a country that definitely shows humanity, support, and interest in exchanging knowledge,” he said. “The Peruvian doctors were very eager to learn the experiences from the U.S. doctors. People have made this not a services, donation or help campaign, but a knowledge exchange campaign. The U.S. and Peruvian doctors have both taken away very grateful experiences.”

*Matt Pueschel – U.S. Department of Defense Force Health Protection & Readiness, International Health Division

To see a video clip on this mission, please click here:

It’s a shame that contributions such as the ones of New Horizon volunteers aren’t valued, and that on the contrary, people jump with accusations as if they were “foreign invasion mission”. The most important thing is that these contributions from American and Peruvian doctors in areas devastated by the earthquake and that are vulnerable to poverty signify apprenticeship and a lot of solidarity. We hope that these contributions keep going to countries with a lot of necessities, especially in times of post-disaster.