Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Serving a need in Peru

Dr. John Washburn will soon leave his post in CoxHealth's urgent care to spend three years at a hospital that serves rural residents of the Andes. 

John Washburn had always known he wanted to use his talents to give back to others. It was on a mission trip in 2003 in the mountains of Peru that he came face to face with a level of need that inspired him to reach out on an international scale.

Hundreds of patients had lined up at a medical clinic and filled out forms describing their ailments. One man listed “broken arm” as his complaint and Dr. Washburn asked if he could take a look. The man rolled up his sleeve and the break was obvious as he bent his arm. Dr. Washburn asked how long it had been this way. “Two years,” the man replied.

“He told me it was really difficult to carry buckets and do his work every day with it broken,” Dr. Washburn says. “ I, naively, asked him why he hadn’t had it fixed and he told me ‘I walked two days to get here and there’s usually no care available here.’”

The clinic wasn’t set up to do surgery, so the man would have to wait a little longer for his arm to be fixed, but Dr. Washburn says he knew he wanted to return to Peru to help care for patients like this man: hard-working, rural people who often live their whole lives without ever being able to see a doctor.

“I wanted to be in a position to provide that care, high-quality care where there is so much need.”

In the coming weeks, Dr. Washburn will leave his post at CoxHealth’s urgent care to begin serving that need in Curahuasi, Peru. He’ll spend the next three years volunteering at Hospital Diospi Suyana (above), which sits at 9,000 feet and is surrounded by the 17,000-foot peaks of the Andes mountains.

The facility was founded by missionaries in 2007 to meet the health and spiritual needs of locals who are geographically isolated from many services – between 30 and 40 percent of the patients at the hospital travel more than 10 hours to get there.

Dr. Washburn will lend his expertise to a small team of volunteer doctors who work in the hospital. The facility has labs, medicine, ultrasound and CT technology – all donated – but physicians are the resource that frequently limits care. On weekends, 400-500 people line up to get tickets to receive care the following week; typically, the physicians are only able to see about 250 patients.

“The patients we can’t see leave empty-handed and have to come back the following week to wait in line. This is the sad situation for the poor who need health care in rural Peru,” Dr. Washburn says. “The patient needs don’t vary based on when doctors are available.”

Dr. Washburn and his wife, Crystal, are currently raising funds and as soon as they are fully funded – hopefully by the end of the year – they will make the move. The couple and their two young children will live in a town near the hospital, where they hope to find lodging “with a non-leaking roof, maybe with hot water and maybe with an indoor bathroom. Maybe.”

Once you’ve seen the need up close, Dr. Washburn says, those temporary inconveniences are a small price to be able to make a difference.

“I had been on missions in church when I was growing up and I realized early on that I have way more than most people do,” Dr. Washburn says. “God has blessed me with that and with the ability to help people.”

That perspective has played a key role in Dr. Washburn’s personal and professional development. After completing his undergraduate study in biology at Colorado State, he headed to Ross University School of Medicine in the West Indies, where he studied with medical students from all over the world. Alongside his medical training, he went on several mission trips – he and Crystal actually met on a mission to Serbia.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. Of course, that can be done here in the U.S. and abroad. For me, personally, it’s abroad.”

The missions he participated in were almost always focused on regions where access to medical care is a major issue. Visiting physicians are often restricted by access to medications and limited facilities in temporary clinics. That’s what makes the hospital in Peru so appealing: it offers a centralized facility in the middle of an underserved region.

“The hospital is special – you have what you need to provide great care,” Dr. Washburn says. “It’s nice to feel like I can give good quality care and make a difference.” 

Providing a broad range of care has always appealed to him – it’s one of the things that attracted him to the Cox Family Medicine Residency – and Hospital Diospi Suyana offers ample opportunities. The 55-bed hospital is usually staffed with two pediatricians, one surgeon, one gynecologist and one urologist. Whoever is on call sees whatever cases come through the door.

“It’s very patient-focused. Working there teaches you to rely less on technology and more on clinical skills, which is important. It’s satisfying, but it can be scary. Here, there’s a specialist to call, there, it’s you and a handful of doctors. You rely on your gut instinct and go with it.”

He’s seen how much of a difference a handful of doctors can make. He recalls a tropical medicine rotation he did in Ecuador in 2009. When he arrived, he met a woman who had suffered a snakebite and had been undergoing treatment for a few weeks. Her foot was swollen, but she was able to walk and she was making progress. On that same day, he saw a patient who had been bitten a month earlier. She hadn’t been able to access treatment and she had just arrived on an emergency flight.

“I could smell the odor of decay. Flesh was falling off her leg and I could see the femoral artery pulsating. Her leg was essentially dead, but was still attached. It had to be amputated. She left without a leg while the woman who had access to the hospital was able to recover. That’s why the hospital is there.”

Dr. Washburn says seeing the life-changing care that is possible makes it clear that Peru is the place for him to make an impact. Even when the cases aren’t dramatic, being able to provide basic, daily care to people who have lived so long without it is especially satisfying.

“It’s completely different there, and yet it’s the same: people have back pain, knee pain, gastritis, and they need care. It’s cool to take care of people, knowing they’ve never seen a doctor before in their lives. It’s an honor to have their trust and it’s really a privilege to be able to care for them.”

Want to help? 

Dr. Washburn, like all the physicians at Hospital Diospi Suyana, will work on a volunteer basis and will raise his own funds to support himself during his stay. 

If you’d like to donate, visit, click “support a missionary” and enter Dr. Washburn’s name.