Letter: Project Helping Hands

I went to Urubamba last November to scope things out. My primary objective was to find a place to live and schools for the kids. I also wanted to see some of the local health centers and learn about organizations where Jeff & I could do some volunteering. I ended up learning more from chance encounters than any other way. Isn’t that always how it works? One person would say “Oh you should talk to so-and-so” and that person would send me to someone else, and the next thing you know we have a house, schools, and jobs that we never would have found otherwise. I love how the universe works.

One of those “oh you should talk to” moments led me to Project Helping Hands. My aunt introduced me to some friends who have a son around Charlie’s age, AND have horses. Since she knows how much Charlie loves making new friends and Carmen loves horses this seemed like a strategic meeting. The family was wonderful. They live up the road from Urubamba, on a beautiful piece of land tucked back at the base of the mountains. They welcomed me with open arms to their home, and while I was there other people kept dropping in. One conversation led to another and the hostess said, “Oh, you must meet so-and-so.”

making new friends

I met Alejandra (far right in the photo) and Colqui, a couple who started a non-profit called Llama Pack. Read about their non-profit HERE. It is amazing. They are reintroducing/repurposing llamas into the high Andean communities for sustainable development. One of the things they found when going to the communities, was that they lacked basic health care. They partnered with Project Helping Hands to bring teams of health care providers twice a year to the different communities they work with. Alejandra was explaining what they do and when she said “The organization is based in Oregon” I just about fell over.

“Really?” I said with disbelief.

“Yes, really.” Alejandra said.  “I was just in Portland last week meeting with the team leader.”

Hard to believe that I had come all the way to Urubamba to find out that an organization like PHH is in my own Portland backyard. As soon as I got home, I called Kim, the PHH Peru Team leader. She’s my new BFF.

I learned as much as I could about the organization. They have programs all over the world, not just in Peru. The goal of PHH is to work closely with local leaders to do public health education in addition to providing basic medical, dental and vision services. Jeff and I went back and forth about which one of us would apply for the April/May Peru Team. His medical skills are more suited for something like this, but my language skills are an asset. Also, I started looking into designing a School of Medicine elective for 3rd and 4th year students. It made sense that this time around I go.

I applied for the team and happily was accepted. I’ll be the only MD in a group made up of some fantastic sounding folks. Some have gone on these teams before, and others are new like me. There are PAs, NPs, RN, RTs, students and interpreters coming from the US. There are three Bolivian dentists joining the team too. We will spend 1-2 days in each small community. We sleep on the floors of the local schools, and pack in all of our own food and water in addition to all of the medical supplies we bring. The first few days we will access the communities via car/van. But then we have to walk. Colqui, from Llama Pack, will be leading the way over and through the mountains. Here is an excerpt from the latest email Kim sent.

Saturday we travel by van to Cochayoc a new village for us this year.  Last year several people from Cochayoc walked several hours to get to Ccachin to be seen, and they are very happy we will be coming to them this year.  We will overnight there.  Colqi said this is a smaller community, around 150 people though we can expect travelers from other surrounding small communities.  
Sunday….we begin the Big Trek.  From this point things get real and there is no turning back.   We will start at about 12,500 ft and trek 18 kilometers, over a pass at 14400 ft, to the village of Quelcanca.  Colqi thinks this will take 7-8 hours.  See attachment “trek elevation” for his recording of it. Our kitchen and medical supplies will be transported via llamas…with animals and handlers that Colqi has not yet taken a group of this size with.  That is code for “be flexible if things don’t go like clockwork”…lol.  He wanted to be sure the team was aware that this trek would be Very challenging physically and logistically, and I assured him that each of you is aware of the need to be physically prepared as well as having a mindset to “go with the flow”.  Quelcanca is a community of about 350 people and has not had a medical or dental team since 2011.  And we can probably assume, given the logistics, that they don’t get out to the city much so I am very excited to go to them.  

The fact that the description of our trek, “Very challenging” is capitalized has me a tad worried. If I’m the one who needs the most medical care on the trip, it might not bode well for being asked back. I got myself a prescription for Diamox in case I’m not quite adjusted to the altitude. Holy crap, 14,400 feet is high. And although I spent my 20s hiking around these same mountains, I ain’t 20 anymore. Neither are my knees. Or my lungs.

I’m excited to be a part of this team. I love that someone else does all the organizing–because I just don’t have that in me. I’m excited that the School of Medicine approved the student elective, so up to 3 students can be a part of each team. I hope this will be the beginning of many future trips for me and Jeff, and hopefully our colleagues.

A huge thank you to all of our friends and family who have donated to my Peru Team Fund. I am beyond humbled at the generosity you have shown. You have no idea how far these funds will go to support the patients and communities I will visit.

Stay tuned for April 29-May 11.




One thought on “Letter: Project Helping Hands

  1. Omg!!!!
    This whole situation is amazing.
    Of course the Llama love is based in pdx – do they know Rolo?!
    I am so excited for you all – what an incredible gift you are giving to everyone + what lasting memories you all will be making.
    Lots of love to you,


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