Excellent Professionals and Excellent People

Doctors Jaime Vallejos and Johnny Camacho, general surgeons and our longtime partners from Viedma Hospital in Cochabamba, sat down for an in-depth interview during their Solidarity Visit this past spring. Both doctors have studied and traveled in Latin America, but this was their first trip to the United States. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation with communications volunteer Betsy Station.

 Camacho (left) and Vallejos observed at a partner hospital in Washington, DC

Camacho (left) and Vallejos observed at a partner hospital in Washington, DC

On their partnership with Solidarity Bridge: “We were very fortunate to learn about Puente de Solidaridad and Solidarity Bridge in 2009,” says Dr. Vallejos. “It’s been important for Viedma Hospital because it has helped us expand laparoscopic surgery, and because the doctors who have come are excellent professionals and excellent people. They’ve taught us everything they know and, normally, Bolivian professionals would need to leave the country for this type of training. But thanks to Puente de Solidaridad and Solidarity Bridge, we could learn new techniques in our own hospital, which is the most wonderful thing that can happen to a medical professional.”

Who they serve: “Viedma Hospital is a public hospital where the poorest people, those with the fewest resources, come,” says Dr. Vallejos. “If patients need surgical supplies, we send them to Puente de Solidaridad to obtain what is required. Year round, we rely on Solidarity Bridge to provide supplies for the people with greatest need. The recent donation of a laparoscopic tower is a very, very important thing for the hospital, allowing us to serve more patients with this type of surgery.”

 (From left) Doctors Marco Fernandez, Camacho, Malcolom Bilimoria, and Vallejos

(From left) Doctors Marco Fernandez, Camacho, Malcolom Bilimoria, and Vallejos

What they noticed at US hospitals: “Technology is advancing on a daily basis,” says Dr. Camacho. “It’s very rapid. Time in the OR is very expensive for patients in the United States, and American surgeons have to do things more quickly to save time, because time is money. Their objective is to do safe surgery in a short amount of time, not to do fast surgery. And that’s what technology is for.”

On their efforts to take laparoscopic surgery to rural Bolivia:Mobile surgery campaigns have been an important initiative,” says Dr. Vallejos. “Just as Solidarity Bridge sends doctors to Bolivia, we go out from Cochabamba to the provinces, which benefits the people with greatest need. We go to places like Chapare, Punata, Cliza, Mizque, and Tiquipaya, serving patients with very few resources who otherwise would not have access to this type of surgery.”

Training other Bolivian professionals in laparoscopic techniques has a ripple effect: “When we do these surgical campaigns, the surgeon isn’t the only one who learns,” says Dr. Camacho. “Other people do, too—from the nurses to the cleaning staff. Even when they’ve never seen the technology before, they quickly learn how it works and how to take care of it, so our work is multiplied.”

Why they choose to treat low-income patients: “I’m from a place where the need is high, and I think it comes from the way our parents raised us,” says Dr. Vallejos. “When Juan Lorenzo [Hinojosa, Solidarity Bridge’s founder] asked me if I wanted to work with the organization, I didn’t pay any attention to the financial part—whether or not I’d make money. I think what motivated me most was the desire to keep learning. And now that we’re on this path, it’s hard to leave it.” Dr. Camacho agrees: “I was trained and did my residency in a poor hospital, where I could see patients’ needs up close. The number of patients needing treatment has increased. And what you do in the world comes from what you learn at home.”

 With Dr. Gay Garrett In Chicago

With Dr. Gay Garrett In Chicago

On working with US doctors who come to Bolivia as missioners: “It hasn’t been difficult,” says Dr. Vallejos. “There’s a mutual respect between us. I’ve operated alongside Dr. Gay Garrett and Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria, who have a predisposition to teach.” The Americans don’t speak Spanish, but Dr. Camacho explains, “We have a language—the language of surgery. There’s never been a barrier. We always have translators, and the terms are similar, so it’s easy to understand each other.”

Moved by the spirit: “I’m from a Catholic family, and for my family, God has been the main guide,” says Dr. Vallejos. The spiritual dimension of his medical work, says Dr. Camacho, “is the most important part, because it involves everything you are. I believe God is what moves us everywhere.”