Union PAs gain a global perspective through a yearly mission trip.
“It broke our hearts because there was nothing else we could do,” said Nicole Samila, a Union College physician assistant student. “We discovered this woman’s husband had left her and she was raising her three children as a single mother.”
Samila joined twelve other PA students in Peru for Union’s annual medical mission trip where they render medical care to the people who live near the mouth of the Amazon River. “Her symptoms were dizziness, a headache, and a history of diabetes, and when we took her blood sugar, it was over 600,” she recalled. “Because she was already taking oral hyperglycemia medication, there was nothing we could do but recommend she see her doctor for insulin. Even so, she was still thankful—she said ‘gracias’ to us multiple times and kissed us on the cheek. She was so sweet.”
Every July, a group of Union College physician assistant students, Pastor Rich Carlson, Union’s vice president for Spiritual Life, and a handful of alumni medical professionals visit Iquitos, Peru, a city of one million people in a remote part of the Amazonian jungle, to provide medical care to residents who don’t have access to regular care.
“Iquitos is a big city and has the dirtiest slums I’ve ever seen,” said Carlson. “The people there have terrible living conditions, they live in sewage and the rivers rise in the rainy season. Their church is on stilts, and sometimes they have to take a canoe up to the door of the church.”
Located on the Amazon River, Iquitos can only be reached by boat, and residents endure a hot and humid climate with rain nearly every day. During their visit, Pastor Rich said the students lived on rice, beans and tropical fruit, and enjoyed a different flavor of juice nearly every day, some even from local flowers.
“The people are so nice,” Pastor Rich added. “I’m biased, but the people in Peru are gracious and kind and they love us—even the ones you don’t know. They just think it’s so neat that you’re there.”
“What I really remember is feeling gratitude,” said Alyssa Merkel, a PA student from Lincoln. “Each person who arrived at our clinic site for the day was so soft, gentle and kind. Whether the patient left shaking our hands, embracing us or kissing our cheeks, it was clear each person was grateful we’d even made the journey to provide them with care.”
The trip itself is comprised of nine days of clinics following an orientation day. Most days they set up in Iquitos, and the PA students, physicians and nurses saw patients and conversed through a translator. They also spent a day or two on the Amazon, stopping at jungle villages to treat people. On Sabbath, the group attended church and then moved the pews aside to set up a clinic for the church members.
“We’ve delivered babies, we’ve done surgeries, we’ve sutured, we’ve cleaned wounds, we’ve treated lots and lots of bad eyes, headaches, dehydration and cuts—I mean, you never know what you’re going to see,” said Pastor Rich, who has led the trip for six years. “It’s not a specialized clinic, we treat whoever shows up. That’s our purpose: to give the students the experience of mission, of developing countries, of service, and of learning to be a critical thinker from a medical perspective.”
“Not only did this trip provide an opportunity for me to spend time learning with my classmates and growing deeper in my faith, but it also allowed me to serve the people of Peru,” said Merkel. “I feel the best spiritual connection to God when I am serving others. This trip gave me with the chance to do this for people who really need the help.”
For PA student Andre Orduna, the trip may have had more of an effect on him than on the people he treated. “I went to Peru with the expectation of changing the lives of people in need, but I left with my own life changed. My eyes were opened, and I was extremely humbled as nearly every patient left thankful and with a big smile on their faces because their basic needs had been met.”
The PA students provided routine physical exams, prescribed vitamins or temporary pain relief medications, handed out reading glasses, did dental checkups, and more. More than that, each one found they were ones being blessed.
“We may have been handing out the care, but we received the healing,” said PA student Tessa Keeney. “At the end of every clinic we were the ones going home with hugs and hearts full of gratitude for being able to spend time with the people of Peru. This is what I love about the PA profession–it allows me to make a difference not only in a community here in the States, but in a different country as well.”
By Kaylin Thurber, student writer