Zenón has lived all his life in rural Beni, in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia that lie in the Amazon Basin. Like his father before him, he is an agricultural worker. His teenage sons want a different life, and they study hard at the high school in a nearby town. Their older sisters have moved to the far off city of Cochabamba to attend the free public university.
Like many of the rural poor in Bolivia, Zenón ignored the symptoms of disease until he became too weak to work. Unable to digest his food properly, he lost weight and felt hungry all the time. When he became too ill to work, his teenage sons quit school to take their father’s place in the field. Worried about the cost of seeing a doctor, Zenón and his wife tried to treat his illness with medicinal herbs for more than a month, but he only got worse. So they decided to travel to Cochabamba to seek help, bringing their sons with them. The journey took several days, alternating between trucks on the rough roads and motorized canoes on the rivers, which were recently swollen by the unusually heavy rainfall. Finally, they reached Cochabamba and could begin their search for help. The whole family crowded into the room which their daughters are renting in a humble section of the city.
At the public hospital, Hospital Gastro, Zenón saw a doctor and learned to his dismay that he had gastric cancer. The surgery he needed was impossibly expensive for a family like Zenón’s and he was afraid he would have to go home and let the cancer take its course. Imagine the relief Zenón and his family experienced when they learned that a volunteer medical team from the United States would be arriving soon, bringing surgeons who are experts in the type of surgery he needed. They felt sure that the Solidarity Bridge team was sent by God in answer to their prayers.
Zenón was operated on Monday, our first day of surgery in Bolivia. Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria performed the very complex surgery along with Bolivian Dr. Vania Lozada at the Hospital Gastro, longtime collaborators with Solidarity Bridge. They completely removed the cancer and they expect Zenón to make a full recovery. He is already sitting up, talking with his family, and taking short walks in the hospital hallway. In a few weeks he will be able to eat normally and begin to regain the weight he had lost. Most importantly to Zenón, he will regain the strength to resume his normal life and provide for his beloved family.
When I take photos of our patients and their families, I always ask their permission and tell them why I want to take photos: “Many good people in the United States want to help the people of Bolivia but cannot come with us on a mission trip. So they send us money and medical equipment and ask us to care for those most in need. Since they cannot meet you themselves, I like to bring photos to show them who they are helping. May I share your photo with them?” Zenón was especially enthusiastic in saying yes. He was eager to have you meet his wonderful family and hear his story. It’s hard for me to convey how grateful he is. “Muchas, muchas gracias,” he said. “I will never forget the Americans who came to Bolivia and saved my life. I will pray for them, that God will help them to keep doing this good work, curing people who are in great need. God will bless them always. We are so grateful.”
Zenón and his family will never forget us, and I will never forget them. It’s a tremendous blessing for me to be able to form a bond with these humble, hard-working and very loving people. My life is hugely enriched by them. I, too, am sure that our mission team was sent by God in answer to their prayers.