Bringing health care to the high reaches of the Andes

Chilliwack Rotarians joined a medical outreach service project in Peru that 
has earned international accolades.

First aid experts Cristian Toribio and Matthew Witt lead Quali nurses in a training simulation to treat Mike Hamel’s imitation wounds and injuries

It was an immersive cultural experience and an amazing bonding adventure, but most importantly, it was a trip that will likely end up saving lives.

A team of 10 rotarians, including two from Chilliwack, have returned from a medical outreach service trip to Peru.

They flew to Lima, then a short flight to Cusco in the Peruvian Andes, where they travelled to their accommodations in Pisac. The area, within the Sacred Valley, is most known for the historic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. As they initially acclimatized to the air at an elevations between 11,000 to 15,000 ft – double the height of Mount Cheam – this team prepared for the hard work ahead.

From April 7 to 29, they provided medical and mental health care to the indigenous Quechua people of Peru.

Literacy there is sparse; access is challenging; altitudes yield few crops; and clean water sources are difficult to come by. It’s not an easy place for foreign service teams to provide effective medical care.

Fortunately, they had DESEA Peru as a partnering organization. The grassroots NGO, started by B.C. couple Sandra McGirr and Sandy Hart, has been improving healthcare and water filtration in the Sacred Valley since 2008.

The Rotary team that went down to work with DESEA included two medical doctors, a physiotherapist, two psychologists, as well as two first aid experts. Chilliwack’s Doug Wickers was the physiotherapist and Mike Hamel was the team coordinator.

The service trip was one of Rotary International’s first under the Vocational Training Team (VTT) program. “It’s a brand new program. We’re the first in our district to do it,” Hamel pointed out.

“Part of Rotary’s drive has always been to provide assistance and sustainable results in what we’re doing,” Wickers explained. The VTT program was designed to ensure that the work is worthwhile and benefiting those who really need it. And in this region of Peru, the help was sorely needed.

As an indication to the level of need for medical care in the area, Peru has some of the highest mortality rates for pregnant women, infants, and children under five in South America. With limited access to clean water, sanitation is poor and rates of illness and disease are high. Nutrition is meagre. There’s no running water, electricity, or heat in the one room adobe huts.

“Access to healthcare is very limited, but it’s improved for these villages that DESEA has taken under its wing,” Wickers said.

DESEA has helped to provide transportable and sustainable biosand water filtration systems. They also train local, elected medical advocates, called qualis [pron. kah-lee-s], to make routine health visits and connect those under medical distress to the help they need. The organization refers to the qualis as “the life-force” of their sustainable project model.

Rotary VTT members brought with them expertise from their professions.

Every weekday, the team set up consultation rooms in a Sacred Valley village and provided treatment. Each of the health care professionals was accompanied by a Spanish and Quechua speaking translator to mitigate the language barrier.

In Wickers’ physiotherapy consultations, many of his male patients were employed by tourists as pack-carriers up to Machu Picchu. Although most of them had small frames, they’d carry up to 50 kg (110 lb.). “These guys were in pretty rough shape, physically. A lot of them were young, but quite worn out,” Hamel explained.

In addition to treating their neck and back injuries, Wickers taught patients basic body mechanics of posture, stretching, and best practices for heavy lifting.

The women he treated were responsible for the “bull work” at home – harvesting and digging water irrigation channels in the fields, among other duties. Foot and ankle injuries were common due to the uneven ground.

The psychologists helped villagers better deal with common issues of depression, spousal abuse and alcohol abuse. Using planned skits as a method of connection, they demonstrated safe ways to negotiate and communicate in abusive or potentially abusive scenarios.

The medical doctors performed check-ups, pap smears, and provided treatment plans and administered medication to all who needed it.

“They’re typically quite a shy and retiring folk,” Wickers revealed of the indigenous populations they served. “Part of that is due to how they’ve been regarded by their country.” All of the team members were careful to explain what they were doing and why before any physical examination.

Now home in Chilliwack, Hamel and Wickers reflected over the impacts their team made.

“I think we were able to enhance what was already being done,” Hamel explained. Adding to DESEA’s practical nurses, “we brought a higher degree of healthcare training.”

When they weren’t doing consultations, the team was running training sessions for the qualis. Hamel often served as the human dummy, donning fake wounds or injuries for first aid specialists to demonstrate triage and treatment.

One of the most challenging aspects for all of the healthcare professionals was that of attempting to change a mindset. “We’re creatures of habit,” Wickers said. “When someone questions why you do something a certain way, you say, ‘That’s how I’ve always done it.’”

With the help of the translator, visual illustrations and simulations, the team taught patients and qualis important, yet simple ways to better protect the body from injury, illness and harm as they carry out everyday tasks of physical labour, sanitation, nutrition, and interpersonal communication.

The team left plenty of medication, equipment and supplies behind for DESEA to help the villagers. However, it’s the knowledge and insight that they truly hope will make a lasting and meaningful impression, as the individuals that they trained share that information with others.

The program, funded by Rotary International and led by the Rotary Club of Coquitlam, was recently awarded Best International Project at the District 5050 conference.

As they continue to strengthen the relationships with the government and local Rotary club, DESEA accepts donations online at

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