Peru Trip Was "Humbling"…
Commodores on a Mission
By Andrew Derr

Earlier this summer, Vanderbilt women's basketball players Hillary Hager and Venessa Ferragamo were on a mission … a medical mission.

As part of a 24-member team which also included assistant athletic trainer Kris Mack and associate strength coach Lori Alexander, Hager and Ferragamo spent the better part of ten days in a remote section of Peru providing medical care to an indigenous population largely in need of healthcare services.

Dr. Jeff McKinzie, from Vanderbilt's emergency medicine department, organized and led the team, as they provided free services ranging from basic medical and dental to optical care.

"I wanted to put something together purely on a humanitarian basis, with the goals of education, partnership, and service," McKinzie said. "It went really well, a tremendous experience. For anyone, regardless of age, who has never been to a third-world country, it is an eye-opening experience. There is a lot of poverty, and little or no access to medical care for these people."

For Hager and Ferragamo, who have traveled internationally with the Commodore women's basketball team, this was an experience unlike any other.

"We worked in the eye-care part of the mission, and we gave out bifocals, tested their vision and we made prescription glasses," Ferragamo, a junior at Vanderbilt, said. "I am so glad I went. Being able to help those people, most of whom have never seen a doctor before, being able to help them see a little better, it was definitely worth it."

"Vanessa and I are both pre-med, but I had never done anything really hands-on before," Hager, also a junior, added. "This convinced me about my major, being able to help people. You see people's reactions to the help you give them, and it's a wonderful feeling."

Cusco: 11,000 Feet Above Sea Level
The team of volunteers traveled to Cusco, Peru, the ancient capital city of the Inca empire. Located high in the Andes, approximately 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco is home to almost 300,000 people, most of whom are direct descendents of the Incas. Each day, the team would rise at dawn in the cool mountain air and travel 45 minutes by bus to the remote village of Pisac, the clinic site for the team.

"We worked in an empty building, and we had to take everything with us," Hager said. "All the medicines, supplies, even a dental chair - everything we needed, we took with us."

McKinzie noted that the medical team, in just under ten days, saw 2,369 patients. Ailments ranged from malnutrition to respiratory problems to the almost universal condition of intestinal worms and parasites, due to the poor sanitation and living conditions in the region.

The ER physician acknowledged that as much as they wanted to, the medical team simply could not treat everybody.

"Unfortunately, these people are not guaranteed care. Everyday, we had to turn people away. It was humbling, because there was no way to see everybody," McKinzie said.

"People would line up early in the morning to get seen the next day," McKinzie added. "And the night before our last day, people were lining up that night. That was very humbling."

A Daily Dish of Real Life

The conditions were like that of many of third-world countries. "It was pretty unsanitary," Hager said. "In sections of Pisac, raw sewage would run right down the middle of the street."

Ferragamo and Hager learned to understand and appreciate the conditions in which they found themselves, particularly as they learned more about the people they helped.

"I really had no idea how people in that kind of poverty lived, because we just don't ever see it," Ferragamo admitted. "It's such a completely different way of life for the people that we helped.

"We worked with many artisans there, many women who had sewn all their life, for example," Ferragamo continued. "I couldn't imagine having sewn all my life and not being able to even see the needle anymore. But then we gave them glasses, and they could see the needle again. They were eternally grateful."

"Some of the older women, the Quechua women, you would give them a pair of glasses, and they would kiss you, and then get on their knees and thank you," Hager added. "That total gratitude, I'll never forget that."

The two Commodore basketball players learned about the trip through Kris Mack, who works at the McGugin Center. Mack was originally going to make the Peru expedition last September, but the events of "9/11" pushed the trip back to May. When the rescheduled trip did not interfere with school and athletic events, Mack recruited Hager, Ferragamo and Alexander to join her and the rest of the medical team.

"I just wish everyone could experience a third-world country," Mack said recently. "Because unless you actually physically experience what they don't have, you will never appreciate it."

In Alexander's case, she found out firsthand that it was not just the Peruvians who benefited from the trip.

"None of the four of us have medical experience really, we are just in related fields," Alexander commented. "To realize how much help you can give even with little experience, that was amazing.

"It also makes you realize how spoiled we are and how great we have it here," Alexander said. "We can go to the doctor whenever we want to, and it gets corrected. I went on this trip to help other people, but I feel as if I got more out of it than the people we were helping."

The trip touched Mack in a similar fashion.

"The biggest thing for me was seeing these people walk four-eight hours to get to the clinic, stand in line all day and then some of them even be turned away at the end of the day because we couldn't see them all," Mack said. "But they were still so grateful. And they put so much hope in us Americans. We have so much technology here, they have absolutely nothing, and yet they are such happy people, probably happier than we are and we have everything in the world."

Being humbled and gaining perspective on life in general seemed to be served morning, noon, and night.

"There was this one man, whose leg was infected, and who the doctors had to take into the bigger city and put under in order to clean the infection," Alexander recalled. "This man had walked miles on his hurt leg just to see us and hope to get help."

Alexander was not the only one to be astounded by the patients who she helped.

"Kris and I worked together, and there was this man who came in, probably 50-60 years old, and we put this first pair of reader glasses on him," Hager said, laughing as she recalled the gentleman's reaction. "They weren't even that strong, but he yelled out, 'Perfecto!' because he could actually see his hands better when he held them in front of his face."

Saying Good-Bye
When it came time to pack up and return to the States, the team had mixed emotions. Interacting with the Peruvian children all week, but then having to say goodbye to them and their families certainly was tough.

"With the kids, one of the things we noticed was how happy they were," Alexander said. "We were there with all our stuff to help them, and yet they followed us around and wanted to know if they could help us.

"They were so thankful we were there, they wanted to do something for us," Alexander continued. "That was one of the bigger things our group witnessed: their sense of family, community and giving was so strong. I think our group learned from them."

Beyond the emotional impact of the work itself, it was also hard to leave behind the scenery.

"We were down in a valley, with the Andes Mountains all around us," Hager said. "The landscape was breathtaking. I have been to the Rocky Mountains, and they pale in comparison to where we this summer."

Of course, there were some things the group was willing to leave behind.

"It was nice to get back to our standard of living and not have to be so careful about what we eat," Alexander said. "Of course, about half the people still got sick."

One of those who got sick was Hager. Stomach illness that brings with it flu-like symptoms is common to outsiders traveling to South American countries. As is the case with many third-world countries, poor sanitation is the cause.

"I was fortunate enough that it didn't hit me until I got home, but then I was sick for about a week and a half," Hager recalled.

Effect on Life Back Here at Vanderbilt
While college basketball did not enter the ladies' minds that often during their trip, Hager and Ferragamo were able to gain some added perspective on that aspect of their life here at Vanderbilt.

"We learned to depend on teamwork in Peru," Ferragamo said. "There were almost 25 of us, and we had not met any of the other ER doctors, and we spent pretty much the whole day interacting and working with them. Learning how to work with others and get the most out of ourselves, that reminded me of the team aspect in basketball."

"We also realized how fortunate we are not only to play college basketball, but to get a scholarship to play basketball," Hager added.

Both Kris Mack and Lori Alexander returned with fresh outlooks on their work within the athletic department, as well.

"We have so much to learn from them. These people have never seen a doctor in their life and they are 70-80 years old," Mack said. "I work in sports medicine here, and if people can't get an MRI within 12 hours, they are upset," Mack said. "We have one of the top medical centers in the world here, and I just hope people will go back and give more."

"To a degree, it makes it harder to come back to work," Alexander added. "When I first returned, I was so much less tolerant. People would complain about dumb little things, and you want to say, 'you have no idea.'

"In America, when we have to sit in a doctor's office for an hour, we are moaning and complaining, just to get care we probably don't even need."

McKinzie, who has organized and gone on several of these medical mission trips, was not surprised by the reactions of his team.

"It is really an enlightening experience and it helps people appreciate what they have here," he said. "We see how incredibly thankful and grateful these people are, and that has a profound impact on a person."

Additional Trips - Information & Funding
McKinzie is currently planning additional trips to Peru and other South American countries in need to healthcare services. One location may be Guyana next spring, and a return trip to Cusco is in the works for next summer.

McKinzie pointed out that funding for these trips is largely completed by the team members themselves, either through fundraisers or simply out-of-pocket expenses. While drug and other supply companies provide thousands of dollars worth of much needed medical supplies, the cost per person can still be around $2,000 for the trip.

If you are interested in donating to the funds that go to these trips or simply want to learn more about the medical mission projects, you can contact McKinzie via email (Jeff.McKinzie@Vanderbilt.edu) or phone (615-936-0087).


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