A medical clinic deep within the jungles of Peru where I volunteered admitted two little sisters and their brother. They were severely burnt by a kerosene container that “exploded”. Kerosene is the fuel source for cooking and lighting in the jungle. One of the girls died before she arrived at the clinic. All we could do was wrap her little body while the mother cried as she looked on. The police suspected that since kerosene doesn’t usually explode, narcotic traffickers may have sold this unsuspecting family a more volatile substance either mixed with or in place of kerosene. Kerosene is much sought after by cocaine producers for use as a solvent to convert coca leaf to coca paste, and eventually to cocaine. At Mass in the evening, a mother and her two small children were presented to the congregation. The father had just drowned in the river when their canoe turned over. Navigating the sometimes turbulent Napo in narrow, shallow canoes can be treacherous. The father managed to save his little boy and baby but was too tired to pull himself on shore. His body was found some time later downriver.
Where is this place of tragedies? Situated in the Amazon jungle of northeast Peru, midway between the city of Iquitos and the border with Ecuador on the Napo River is the village of Santa Clotilde. The village has two telephone lines that connect to the outside world, sporadic internet connection, and electricity for several hours each day run by diesel generators. Nested within the village lies a place of hope - a modest clinic called the Centro de Salud. The clinic is run by Fr. Maurice Schroeder, OMI, MD from Saskatchewan, and Fr. John “Jack” MacCarthy, OPraem, MD from Wisconsin. The two self-sacrificing, humble and compassionate priest-doctors have devoted nearly three decades of their lives transforming a small rural clinic to a facility of over 30 inpatient beds. With tireless persistence, they established a dozen smaller clinics along a stretch of 400 kilometers of the Napo. The Fathers have trained and employed local people to become nursing aids, pharmacy technicians, and administrators. Both work with love and joy tending to the physical and spiritual needs of the people - healing the sick, administering the Sacraments - all while battling government politics that constantly threaten the survival of the clinic.
The clinic typically sees cases of malnutrition, malaria, TB, diarrhea, parasitic infestations, and now, HIV. In addition to clinic activities, there are out-reach programs such as campaigns for vaccination, malaria control, and cancer screening. The clinic has both an outpatient and inpatient component, and admits approximately 1000 patients each year. Peruvian medical residents, nurses or laboratory technicians who are required to do rural service before graduation, come to train in Santa Clotilde. Occasionally medical volunteers from Canada and the US come to work. Funding is predominantly through donations, contributions from various religious congregations, and a lesser amount from the Peruvian government.
Life is hard in the jungles of Peru. This is an impoverished, disenfranchised population of predominantly indigenous people. Approximately 15,000 people belonging to over 100 villages live on or near the river banks and tributaries of this region. The majority eke out a living through subsistence agriculture, hunting and fishing. People live in stilted wood huts to stay above the waters during flood seasons. They burn an open fire to boil water, or cook a simple meal of plantain and occasionally fish. The Napo is their water source for drinking, cooking, cleaning and toileting. Parasitic diseases are rampant. These infections greatly affect the children’s ability to learn, grow and fight infections. People who fall ill outside of Santa Clotilde sometimes endure days of travel in a small canoe to reach medical help.
But the greatest threat to the people’s survival stems from greed and self-interest. Passionate for the people, Fr. Jack recently wrote, “Some, who know nothing of sustainable forestry, come with chain saws and tractors to take out the hardwoods. Others come with liquid mercury to extract the gold from the river's silt. Still others come with outboard engines to speed cocaine paste on to its processing sites and into your hometowns. They have no concern about hunting grounds, traditional territories, small, peaceful communities, a healthy environment, or newborns.”
Santa Clotilde has changed my life. I am moved to care. I witnessed destruction and tragedy; the Fathers showed me service and love. I learned that poverty does not diminish the spirit or the joy of a beautiful people. I realized that our way of life here and the choices we make can directly affect people half way around the world to the very remote villages like Santa Clotilde. As such, we need to respect life and the dignity of life for each and every human being.
We are an intimately intertwined, global community. With greater awareness and a desire to right injustice, we can positively influence, protect and renew this community. Then perhaps tragedies will have a chance to heal, and the people of Santa Clotilde, and all lives whose existence is threatened, will survive. And sustaining all is hope – the hope that ultimately God’s will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.