Birth of a Hospital: If We Want to Do This, We Can!

Written by Jodi Grahl

After some 20 hours of travel this weekend, our final flight touched down at the new Chuquisaca Airport on Saturday. As we pulled our eight overstuffed suitcases filled with medical supplies off the carousel, I spotted Patricia Vargas, executive director of our sister organization Puente de Solidaridad, waiting for us outside. Little did I know, she was not alone!

Patricia waited to greet us flanked by a half-dozen doctors who had made the 45-minute trek from the city to personally receive us, load our bags, and usher us to their hospital, Instituto Chuquisaqueño de Oncología (ICO) where we will be working together this week. At the hospital, we were greeted by even more staff who kindly offered us warm coca tea and crackers to help us adjust to the high altitude. But we were only beginning to understand the depth of love and commitment that defines this ICO team.

Over dinner, Dr. Wilfredo Campos, one of the original team of doctors who helped found the ICO, told us more about how the hospital came to be. The story began with the establishment of a tiny oncology department at another one of the city’s public hospitals. In reality, the department consisted of five doctors sharing one small office. After only a few short months, the group was overwhelmed with patients and convinced the hospital to loan them an unused hallway where they outfitted rooms with six patient beds. When these filled up only three months later, they cleaned out and painted an unused warehouse to make room for more. But patients kept coming. There was never enough room, equipment, staff, or other resources to treat them all.

On behalf of their patients, the doctors lobbied the state government to give them an abandoned building adjacent to another hospital in the center of town. The first time they visited, they realized the walls were crumbling and rats had taken over the entire structure. Dr. Campos turned to his colleague, Dr. Maribel Marmol, and said. “I think this is mission impossible.” Dr. Marmol responded, “If we want to do this, we can.

They accepted the building, but the funds allocated for its renovation would cover only 20% of the full costs to repair and update the space to serve their cancer patients. Their “we’ll do it ourselves” attitude kicked into full gear; they knew they couldn’t let their patients down. While continuing their medical practice, the doctors also found beds discarded by other hospitals and repaired and painted them themselves. Room by room, from one end of the building to the other, they rebuilt, repaired, and refinished one space at a time, hiring skilled craftsmen when needed, but doing much of the labor on their own to keep costs as low as possible.

When their patients learned what they were doing, they and their families began to pitch in their own trade skills and labor. Together they built Bolivia’s second-only public cancer center, dedicated to serving all patients regardless of their financial means.

The story brought tears to our eyes. What better example of solidarity? We are humbled by the invitation to take part in this work, offering our skills and labor to the tasks at hand.

At the inauguration of the mission trip

As we began to organize our work for the week, we learned from the ICO social worker that a total of 325 women had responded to the publicity campaign advertising for patients in need of gynecologic surgery during this mission trip. In the week before our arrival, doctors at the hospital provided a full consultation for each woman. Most were not candidates for the types of surgeries we will offer this week. However, instead of surgery, the women received medical treatment or referrals for other care. It was incredible to know that even before our arrival and unbeknown to us, just the announcement of this mission trip had resulted in hundreds of women seeing a doctor and receiving care. Of those 325, a final group of 12 was presented as candidates for surgery. After reviewing each file and conducting her own examination and interview of each patient on Sunday, mission surgeon Dr. Janet Tomezsko had confirmed a final list and surgery schedule for eight patients.

As our mission week continues, I remain inspired by the incredible story of the founding of this hospital, and Dr. Marmol’s very wise words ring in my ears, “If we want to do this, we can!” Please keep our team, the staff at ICO, and especially our patients in your prayers this week.