Thoughts from an Alumni – Emily Cordes, MD
It seems odd to not be preparing for an Amazon Promise February/March trip in 2021. For the last few years, I have found myself squishing jars of peanut butter and bars of dark chocolate (jungle necessities) into a suitcase already overpacked with medical supplies. This is obviously an unprecedented year with international travel practically grinding to a halt. The news out of Iquitos from Amazon Promise about the havoc COVID has created in the Amazon is heartbreaking. Many lives have been lost and I anticipate that healthcare in the Amazon has been changed forever, as it has here in the states. If there is a silver lining to a global pandemic, however, it may be that it has given us time to reflect on our past experiences.
I have been on three AP trips, two as a resident and then in 2020 returning as volunteer faculty for Western Michigan University School of Medicine. Each trip has been incredible and it’s difficult to pick just one story to share. I have seen countless parents bring their children to a clinic to ensure that they are healthy. I have witnessed the change that occurs when a community gets a new water system; one year we treat almost everyone for gastrointestinal parasites and the next year we visit a healthy, thriving community. I have handed out countless tubes of antifungal cream and bars of soap. I have witnessed many elders, who have slowly lost their sight, pick up a pair of glasses and be able to read again. This list may sound mundane, but I believe these small actions add up to creating and sustaining health in a community.
I have had several people ask what brings me back to the Amazon, and they have all probably heard different answers. In general, though, it goes back to the incredible people I have been honored to meet along the way. Last year I met a 70-year-old man who asked me to make a house call to visit his mother. I love house calls, so I was eager to go. At his home, I met his mother, who was born in 1915 (I did the math several times in my head that day….yes she was 105 years old). Even after crouching down, I towered above this tiny woman, as she asked me if I could fix her arthritis and her sight. Before we left her home, I asked her how she made it to 105 years old. She said it was simple, she ate the fish out of the river, plantains and yuca that she grew, kept moving and loved her family. She was sharp as a tack at 105 years old. I have been thinking about her response ever since I met her. It dawned on me a few weeks ago that this woman possibly witnessed two global pandemics. I wish I could ask her for advice on living during a pandemic. I wonder if she would have the same response: eat well, keep moving, love your family.
I so wish I were packing a suitcase full of supplies right now. Each year I go, I hone a list of necessities that I won’t go without (coffee and duct tape). This year, instead of packing for a trip, I’m planning on unpacking all the wisdom and knowledge that the Amazonian people have given me.