Amazon Promise – Medical Mission, by Celine Cousteau
At the end of October 2008 I joined a team of volunteer doctors on a two-week medical expedition into the Peruvian Amazon with the non-profit, Amazon Promise. I went to document the journey in video and stills to tell the story of this NGO as they bring much needed medical attention to very remote areas of the Peruvian Amazon. We traveled from village to village along the Pastaza River near the border with Ecuador, attending both indigenous Achuar and mestizo communities. I was able to assist the doctors keep a terribly ill and malnourished 9-month old child alive, I washed terribly infected wounds and I dispensed endless amounts of medication. It was sad, inspiring, motivating, energizing and tiring at the same time. In the end it was an incredible perspective on my own life.
THE JOURNEY AND THE TEAM
After flying into Iquitos, Peru we boarded the plane that brings workers to Andoas, the oil base near the border with Ecuador. Our supplies would live there while we traveled to remote villages for days at a time, returning to restock.
The two wooden boats we used were loaded down with medicine, volunteer foreign doctors, local doctors, a cook, and a boat driver. We also had an indispensable team of people who not only loaded and unloaded the boats, they translated, helped navigate the difficult river, packed and unpacked all the boxes of medicine and tools, as well as organized the patients.
This was my sixth journey into the Amazon. The first one was aboard the Calypso when my grandfather was filming in the early 80’s. The next four expeditions were in 2006 and 2007 while filming the documentary Return to the Amazon with my father and brother for PBS. The most current trip was different in that I was not part of a production team as I usually am, but rather surrounded by doctors.
I am used to playing various roles on my usual expeditions- second photographer, presenter, and field producer. This new plan posed quite the challenge in that I was carrying not only all my still camera gear as usual, but I also had a video camera in hand and audio equipment in my pack. My responsibilities were to help on the medical side of the journey, providing support in both wound care and dispensing medications in the pharmacy, so my usual gear took a backseat.
Though my camera is usually around my neck, on this journey I found it was often by my side as I would wash an infected wound, clean a fungal skin ailment, or shampoo a child’s lice infested hair. Working at the pharmacy table, dozens of people stared at me and waited to be given the pills that would offer relief from parasites, chronic headaches, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, and a plethora of other ailments. Somehow I managed to carry all these roles.
It is an extremely gratifying thing to be able to give much needed medical attention to such remote and disadvantaged places. To give relief to even one person is something so direct and the feeling associated with this act is so immediate. Much more help is needed as we were the only attention these people had received in their villages in years.
I was surprised to see that PlusPetrol, the oil company now operating in the area, helps the local villages through their clinic on the base and has been offering assistance to non-profits such as Amazon Promise with logistical support, plane tickets to get to the base in Andoas, a staging area for all the supplies, and in our case provided a helicopter to get us to the furthest location more efficiently. The previous company, Occidental, had been dumping the toxic waste water from their oil extraction directly into the rivers. When they left the area, they left all the problems as well. PlusPetrol has been re-outfitting all the wells to re-inject the waste water back from where they got it. This is a sign to me that with enough pressure from the outside, we can make change happen! It is our responsibility to see to this.
I did not go there thinking I would have any empathy for the oil company, but I did come back understanding more. No matter what point of view we have, no matter what opinions we hold, more information is always better. I really started thinking about who is at fault here. Aren’t we all really? Is it not us, the consumers of this oil that are at the root of this issue with our daily requirements for a dose of black gold? We pump it into our cars, dab on petroleum based products, use our plastics, and if you look close enough, oil by-products are everywhere we are. So we are totally right to demand better practices from the oil companies, but we must also demand the same from ourselves.
It was easier for me to adjust to going to the Amazon and be part of the medical team than it was to come home. It took at least a week to adjust back to this world where my phone rings, my computer beckons, emails await, and the clinic is just down the street if I need it.
I was on a small boat with the team going from one village to another with our medical supplies when someone on the boat said- “Oh by the way, congratulations on Obama.” It was Nov 5, obviously he found a radio in one of the villages. I looked around at the vast expanse of green jungle, sweat dripping from all my pores in the midday heat. I thought of the 9-month old girl we attended, malnourished, weighing under 11 pounds (5 kg), with 103.8 fever and pneumonia. Her nail beds were blue, her body was limp, and she could not breast feed because she could not breathe. If we had arrived 2 days later, she would have died.
Of course I was happy Obama was going to be the new president, but in that moment, I was immersed in a very real and tangible experience- saving one little life.
When I got back home, I was asked if it felt good to be back to reality. I had not anticipated my answer- I feel like that was reality.