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Hello from 13,000 feet up in the Andes: Part 3

By Robyn Openshaw, MSW | Jan 04, 2010

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.

Posted in: Nutrition, Parenting

12 thoughts on “Hello from 13,000 feet up in the Andes: Part 3”

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Robyn:

    I’m so sorry you had such a horrible experience, I’ve never been to Cuzco, but I’m from Lima and I’m just offended by your statement of “oh please God don’t let us get sick in this COUNTRY, that’s a strong statement, you are probably just getting used to what real life is, (we are spoiled in the US I know) but maybe that was stereotyping a little don’t you think, I love your program and the way you present it with the GREEN SMOOTHIES recipes, I strongly suggest to stick to it and before you stereotype even more you please go to Lima and go to a real hospital, you knew better when you took that trip to the 3dr world and that traditionally any person from the Andes region, (Peruvian, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Chilean and Argentinean Sierra) you’ll find horrifying for city person even from Lima, I was born in Lima and never went to the mountains because that, you have to not only know the language (that is Spanish and some quechua at least to get around the real indigenous people, but please don’t misrepresent the entire country that will be like saying that all people that all Germans love Hitler or that all blacks are lazy or all Italians belong to the mafia!

    Regards and keep safe

    Kathy Malone

  2. American woman are also told their pelvis’ are too small. I think you explained the high mortality rate well… weeks in the hospital, crowded conditions, dirty instruments (are the instruments even necessary?)…

    I’m glad the mothers get to hold their baby’s. That’s the best place for the baby.

    The peasant mothers should stay home and learn to trust their body to labor.

    I wish I was in Peru with you! I’d love to do a missions with you. Did you know my husband is from Peru?

  3. Anonymous says:

    As Denise mentioned, women in the US are often told their pelvises are too small by doctors, among many other reasons. Because of this, we have an incredibly high c section rate…I am wondering whether their primitive obstetrics practices might be contributing to this phenomenon of them being “too small.” I was surprised to hear that the peasant women, or really that any of them used this type of maternity care. Usually in other parts of the world, women either birth on their own or at least have competent midwives who understand natural birth (what you said about the midwife putting her weight on her stomach and doing the episiotomy do not sound promising).

    I find it upsetting that the American way of looking at and treating pregnancy and birth are spreading to these other countries. I wish that women around the world were able to give birth the way their bodies were meant to, with access to competent medical care when needed.

  4. Robyn Openshaw, MSW says:

    Denise, I didn’t know that! I am thinking about taking GSG readers to Mexico City in July for an expedition to assist an orphanage AND help run the Street Children’s Olympics. I’m planning to go with Van in Feb. to scout it out. I hope you come!!

    There were far too many C sections in the women we met on the OB ward.

    I didn’t mention in my story that forceps were employed, even though I thought the woman was doing fabulously pushing the baby out herself (quite quickly, to be honest–I wish my own labors were so short).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Robyn, I’m a Mexican living in the USA because of the violence in my country. You have no idea how dangerous is to be there right now. I admire your courage and your generosity but, please get informed about the Cartel’s wars and how they are killing innocent civilians to get revenge against the government. I don’t know under which conditions you are traveling but still consider Mexico twice before you go. It’s sad but it’s true. Wish you luck, and green smoothies are changing my health!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am fascinated with your trip to Peru. I am a new greensmoothiegirl. I have taught natural childbirth classes for many years. I would love to be part of an expedition to see birthing in another country. The Mexico trip sounds fun also. How do I get more information?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Robyn, I was upset when I read, at too late a date, about your mission to Peru! I have kept up with your blog and this trip sounds as though you were meant to be there to feed the people and your’s and the group’s soul. Your blog has even lifted my spirits from my own troubles which are minor when compared to those you and your group are helping. Bless you and those you’re helping! I hope one day I will have the great fortune to travel and help feed my soul too!!

  8. Anonymous says:


    I’m an American living in Mexico and I disagree with your statement that the entire country of Mexico is dangerous. I live in Guadalajara and was recently in Mexico City. I feel safe here and think Robyn’s trip to Mexico City is a fantastic idea.

    I know it is very bad in the border areas and I am sorry that you were driven from your home. But the reality in the interior part of the country is very different from the border.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Well written, Robyn, and thank you Lucille for your commentary.

    Be assured that we would take no one into unsafe areas of Mexico. The primary regions of violence are in the northern border states.

  10. Anonymous says:


    Thank you for your efforts in Peru. I have been working with several humanitarian groups all over the world for many years. I appreciate how you exposed your daughter to how the rest of the world is. I have six children who have a great appreciation for the freedoms and blessings that they have due to similar exposure. Humanitarian work is an area that once who have seen it you either do something about it or it will haunt you for the rest of your life. As I work with many people I always tell them that this work is not the responsibility of any religion, government, or business. It is all of our responsibility. So pick something that you are passionate about, do it, and do it consistently. Thanks again for all that you do. Please let me know if I can be of assistance in your endeavors.



  11. http://? says:

    Hi Robyn,

    I love reading about your work in Peru. I spent over a year there as a missionary and LOVE those people. My circumstances don’t allow me to travel at the present time but am anxious to go back. I would love to help out anyway I can. Please let me know.



  12. Anonymous says:

    Hola! I am a nurse IBCLC in Queb ec, learning spanish.Will be in Guad in 3weeks .Could i find a clinic or LLL meeting for observation? Thank you Michelle

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