Packed Schedule, Full Hearts

In April, three of our closest Bolivian collaborators arrived in the United States for a Solidarity Visit—a week of meetings, hospital visits, and fellowship that reminded us, once again, that we are one: somos uno.

Doctors Jaime Vallejos and Johnny Camacho, general surgeons and longtime partners at Viedma Hospital in Cochabamba, joined Patricia Vargas, executive director of Puente de Solidaridad (PdS), on the trip.

For Solidarity Bridge, it was the eighth such visit aimed at providing Bolivian partner surgeons and PdS staff with opportunities to work in our Evanston office, connect with local organizations and individuals who support our mission, and engage with US missioners at their hospitals.

For Camacho and Vallejos, the trip had special significance, since both doctors have worked and traveled extensively in Latin America but had never before visited the United States. “We feel happy and fortunate to be here,” said Vallejos.

Our partners’ packed weeklong schedule included planning meetings with Solidarity Bridge staff and board members, to discuss topics from our new medical supply inventory system to surgical quality improvement efforts.

Accompanied by staff, Vargas spoke at meetings of two Chicagoland Rotary Clubs, where she thanked the clubs for donating a laparoscopic tower to Viedma Hospital and shared its impact on patients. The three visitors also attended a dinner hosted by the Bolivian American Medical Society, where the doctors spoke about what their nearly 10-year partnership with Solidarity Bridge and PdS has meant to them. They also enjoyed a networking lunch at Rotary International headquarters in Evanston.

For Bolivian surgeons, spending time at the hospitals where US missioners practice medicine may be the most important part of a Solidarity Visit. At Northwest Community Healthcare in suburban Chicago, Vallejos and Camacho were hosted by anesthesiologist Dr. Marco Fernandez and surgeon Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria, both longtime missioners who have logged many hours in the O.R. in Bolivia.

The Bolivian doctors said they were inspired after observing surgeries and new medical technologies. The next day, they toured Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, meeting with missioner and board member Dr. Dan Lum. “We want to keep learning more and more so we can give our people more,” said Vallejos. “That’s our greatest hope, and what we’ve seen here opens up new perspectives.”

Throughout the week, staff and volunteer interpreters provided Spanish and English translation as needed. But when the Bolivians step into the O.R. with their American counterparts, said Camacho, “We speak the same language—it’s called the language of surgery—and there’s never been a barrier.”

On April 14, the visitors celebrated with the Solidarity Bridge community at Fiesta, our annual fundraiser, held at the Chicago Cultural Center. In a heartfelt speech, Vallejos gave thanks for the opportunity to exchange experiences with professional colleagues.

“I would also like to thank Puente de Solidaridad for the ongoing formation it provides to those of us who dedicate our lives to performing surgery,” he said. “You reinforce and renew our commitment to service on behalf of those who most need us in my country.”

Vallejos told supporters at Fiesta that he spoke for patients too. “They send their immense gratitude for their lives. Thanks to your sacrifice, they are able to be well and remain with their families.”

The next morning, Camacho and Vallejos departed for Washington, DC with senior director of programs Lindsay Doucette, where they observed surgeries at Sibley Memorial Hospital with missioner, surgeon, and friend Dr. Gay Garrett. They squeezed in shopping and sight-seeing at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Lincoln Memorial.

On April 18, the Solidarity Bridge team sent Vargas off with a warm farewell as she met up with Camacho and Vallejos at O’Hare Airport to begin the long journey home. Our shared work to build a healthier future for the people of Bolivia will continue when we meet again soon, on the other side of the bridge.