Retired doctor tackles health care, education in Peru
Residents of Yantaló face long wait times to see the one doctor who serves the town.
A retired cardiologist and member of the Rotary Club of Gurnee, Illinois, USA, C. Luis Vasquez was taken aback by what he saw in Yantaló.
C. Luis Vasquez, a retired cardiologist and member of the Rotary Club of Gurnee, set up the Yantaló Peru Foundation to improve health care and education in the village his ancestors grew up in.
A farming town with a population of 4,000, Yantaló sits in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, about 5 miles from Moyobamba, the capital of the northern state of San Martín. It is the town where Vasquez’s mother, Adelina Soplin, was born in 1905. One hundred years later, in July 2005, Vasquez made his first visit.
He remembered the stories his mother had told him about the poor living conditions, the lack of medical care, and the subpar schools. Nothing had changed.
“I was upset,” says Vasquez, who was born in Lima and has lived in the United States since 1978. “I thought, ‘How is it possible that the local or national politicians keep Yantaló and many other places in a state of abandonment?’”
Within months, Vasquez, with his wife, Mary, and their three sons, had set up the Yantaló Peru Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to improving health care and education. The organization is building a 24-acre campus that will include a clinic and diagnostic center named for Vasquez’s mother. It will offer services in areas including women’s health, neonatology, pediatrics, environmental health, molecular diagnostics, and genetics, as well as continuing education programs for medical professionals on topics such as children’s health and nutrition, preventive medicine, public health, and domestic violence.
A group of 30 workers from Yantaló received training and are constructing the “green” building, which will incorporate five therapeutic gardens, solar panels, and natural ventilation as part of a plan by the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego. The foundation will also plant 6,000 trees on the campus. Donations, including support from Rotarians in Peru and the United States, are funding 80 percent of the US$3 million cost; Vasquez is covering the remainder. The clinic, which will eventually serve a population of two million in the region, is slated for completion by mid-2013. Vasquez has built relationships with organizations including the Yale University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and the Peruvian American Medical Society.
Currently, only one doctor works in Yantaló, part time. Medications are not always available, and the town has no specialists or diagnostic equipment. Even in Moyobamba, health services are lacking. When the new facility opens, local staff members will host international volunteer residents and professors, and all patients will receive the same level of service regardless of their ability to pay. “Most rural communities in Peru have limited access to quality health care facilities. Our goal is to provide uninterrupted services that aren’t currently available at other institutions in the region,” Vasquez says.
Jim Hessenthaler, president-elect of the Gurnee club, visited the construction site in September. “The progress is remarkable,” he says. “Luis’ commitment to a dream of a medical center is within reach.” Vasquez’s mission to provide maternal and child health care and support basic education and literacy is also in line with The Rotary Foundation’s Future Vision Plan, Hessenthaler notes. “That’s where he can make a difference.”
When Vasquez first arrived 2005, he discovered 20 computers donated by the Peruvian government sitting in a box at the high school in Yantaló. The director told him that the teachers and students didn’t know how to use them. The Yantaló foundation now sponsors two computer teachers and five English teachers. Graphic design classes are part of the curriculum, and students are learning to use Excel, Photoshop, and InDesign.
Volunteers who travel to Yantaló to teach English at the school also tutor adults. One student from the University of Missouri taught English classes to construction workers. Another from Germany taught English to students ages 5 to 16 and held night classes for adults.
On a Thursday afternoon in September, Daniel Chujutalli Arevalo was watching his classmates play volleyball and waiting for a friend whom he tutors in basic English every day. In addition to taking the English and computer classes provided by the Yantaló foundation, he spends his time with volunteers who teach him advanced English. “I want to study languages so I can talk to people and travel,” he says.
The Yantaló foundation was also set to install Wi-Fi technology in the town by the end of 2012. Vasquez believes that improved access to information will empower the community. Wuilman Perez, a regional coordinator with the foundation and a native of Yantaló, concurs: “If Luis hadn’t decided to come here, nothing would be as it is now. Nothing would change. Now, when we are finished here, we can do it again somewhere else.”
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