I am a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Clarence Middle School. Last month I went on a trip to the Amazon jungles of northern Peru. I went as the photographer for a medical mission to the Achuar tribes that inhabit the lowlands just east of the Andes Mountains, an area known as the start of the mighty Amazon River. I may have snapped more than 1,300 photographs, but I brought home much more than pictures.
Did you ever take for granted going to the drugstore to get medicine? Or going to the emergency room to get help for an injury? Maybe going to the doctor for a checkup or a flu shot? How about going to the eye doctor to get drops for pinkeye or an eyelash removed or even new glasses? Well I did. Maybe now, though, I have a different perspective.
One week after getting four shots, I found myself on an airplane with two doctors (my dad Dr. David Montesanti and Dr. George Pfohl, both ophthalmologists at Eye Care & Vision Associates) headed for Lima, Peru.
We landed in Lima and met up with our traveling “crew” – a jungle guide (from Ecuador) and a Salesian priest (who doubled as an interpreter). We bonded quickly and began our journey. The trip consisted of two plane rides, one over the Andes Mountains, the other in a five-passenger Cessna smaller than my mom’s minivan, and a 15-hour boat ride up the Amazon.
Throughout the long rides and between the short screams as the plane or boat hit turbulence, I learned that we were going to the village of Chuintar along the Hiutuyacu River just south of the Ecuadorian border. The Salesian priest named Padre Bolla had lived in one of these communities for more than 40 years trying to preserve the rituals and culture of the Achuar Indians. During that time he discovered a very high rate of blindness among these people. He petitioned the Peruvian government for help without much success. That is why we were there.
The trip along the river was breathtakingly beautiful. The sights and sounds were startling, strikingly vivid. I smiled at birds, photographed butterflies and grasshoppers, and even saw a jaguar. Yet it was the people that inhabited this wondrous land that drew all my attention. Short in stature with dark hair and eyes, they smiled openly and were kind. They made our initiation smooth and effortless, accepting us into their community unconditionally and looking at us as friends.
We examined (and photographed) more than 100 patients during our stay. To a person they were gracious, humble and thankful. We learned that some of the patients walked for three days to get to the village to see us. We learned that some of these people had never seen a doctor. And we learned that there were things here that were beyond our ability to help. We vowed that if we could help, we would.
Many patients had similar eye complaints that you or I might have, but we found much more. The simple treatment of eye drops, one that we take for granted, can be near life changing to someone who has no access to this or any medicine. And glasses can seem like a miracle when placed on a 45-year-old who could no longer work a weaving loom or tie a fish hook. But when you tell a mother that her 12-year-old daughter who has been blind since age 8 from cataracts will likely see again after surgery, you get the sense that what you’re doing is all worth it. You share the tears of a father when he finds out his daughter’s poor vision and developmental delay will finally be addressed; your heart leaps for joy when you see the smile of a 26-year-old unmarried woman who thanks you with her eyes when you tell her you can “straighten” them; and your life changes when you watch the fear fall away from a young woman when she realizes that the blindness that has befallen other members of her family will be prevented in her.
Maybe now, like me, you’ll think going to see the doctor isn’t really so bad.