I just returned from a tour of a hospital in Cusco, Peru. If anyone who reads this site / blog thinks I am anti-doctor, I’m not. I am teaching a nutrition clinic to a pediatrics practice on Jan. 15 at home. But I just gained a newfound appreciation for medical care in America. I think we should use it less, especially drugs, especially antibiotics and steroids. But I’m so thankful we have access to some of the best medical care in the world. It was a shock to see Western medicine practiced in such a primitive way.
In the obstetrics unit, the mothers are packed 6 to a room. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world according to the World Health Organization, in the Andean countries: Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. That’s because the women are tiny, and cervical size is directly proportional to body size. In addition to poor medical care in general, many Peruvian women are only 4′ tall, so many are lost in childbirth because of short cervixes where doctors are unable to stop bleeding. The equipment in the OB wing of the Cusco hospital is ancient, the hospital far from sterile and some might even say dirty, there are no incubators, babies must sleep with their mothers, and we gringos were allowed to wander through with our guide, an obstetrics nurse who helps run the orphanage.
Peasant mothers don’t know when they will deliver because they haven’t received any medical care, so they come down out of the mountains and often end up at the hospital for weeks, waiting, all funded by the Peruvian government.
We gave hand-knitted hats and newborn kits to the new mothers, who let us photograph their beautiful babies. One woman’s baby had died, and her daughter was sleeping on the dirty floor next to her, surrounded by other expectant and recently delivered mamas.
Then, with no warning, we were ushered into the delivery room of a first-time mother giving birth. When I realized what we were seeing, I asked my daughter, only 14, and the other 14 y.o. girl with us, if they really wanted to watch a birth, and they did. I am frankly ecstatic that they saw that. What they saw may be more helpful in discouraging poor choices than the semester of Teen Living my daughter just took, where she carried around a fake baby with batteries that cried (very annoyingly) and peed. My daughter said afterward, ”I am never having children.” She’ll get over that, but it is well documented that women with education have babies later (improving the children ´s and family ´s quality of life), and women who have babies later have more education.
Not that seeing the birth wasn’t beautiful. It was. We got to see a human being take its first breath, utter its first cry, and I was deeply moved. This mother had no anaesthesia of any kind, but didn’t make a sound. One of the midwives was putting her entire body weight on the mother’s belly to shove the baby into the world. We watched an episiotomy. We watched the six women around the mother yell, ”Es varoncito!” It’s a baby boy!
The midwives and Eunice, our nurse friend who works on the unit, dragged Linda in to take photos. We gringos (the men were down the hall, declining to watch) were horrified and begged her to come out and not take photos of this very private event. So Linda came back out, but Eunice grabbed her camera and began snapping away. We realized later that Eunice wanted that young mother to have the photos, for us to send them to her. She was there alone, no husband or boyfriend, no parents or siblings or friend–and no camera. Some of the peasant women we photographed have never owned a photo of themselves or their children.
We walked through an emergency room with appalling conditions: patients lying on stretchers with IV’s surrounded by sick people, even some with basins in their laps to throw up in–the waiting room and treatment room were one and the same. Husbands and boyfriends and children sleeping in corners and hallways everywhere.
I’m glad clean and efficient medical care is available in my country when we need it. I couldn’t help but say under my breath a few times in the hospital, ”Please God let none of us get sick in this country.” I have been rather blessed that way. All but a few of the Americans in our expedition have been ill with altitude sickness, diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms. I’ve been totally healthy and even have been eating lettuce salads we were warned against, and using tap water to brush my teeth.
Emma threw up at the entrance to Machu Picchu (”I threw up on one of the 8 Wonders of the World,” she likes to say) but hiked all day and has been otherwise fine.