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Our work in Bolivia: La Paz and Caranavi

The Jiwaqui organization, led by Dr. Adolfo Mamani, is our largest partner organization in the treatment of children with cleft lip and palate in Bolivia. Our proven model of working with local partner organizations guarantees that all the organizational and medical know-how for cleft treatment is accumulated locally. Our South America Project Manager Stefanie Huter tells us about her impressions from her last project visit to see the Jiwaqui team.

Hospital Jiwaqui, El Alto.

Jiwaqui operates a hospital in El Alto, a large Bolivian city immediately to the west of its more well-known (at least to us Germans) twin city La Paz. The eight-story building offers a reception hall, several waiting rooms, specialist treatment rooms for speech therapy, psychotherapy, dentistry, a nursing station, various examination rooms and a meeting room, which is also used for group meetings with the cleft families, the so-called “Escuela de Padres” (Parents’ School). Two operating rooms are planned as future additions. The clinic is meant to become a national reference center where patients from all over the country can receive interdisciplinary, long-term treatment at a high level – already a great achievement by our partner Dr. Adolfo Mamani, and made possible by our donors!

In the morning, we are introduced to the entire team. In each department we are treated to a presentation about their work and have the opportunity to ask our many questions. After lunch we are allowed to attend the Escuela de Padres. Once a week, the parents have the opportunity to participate in a workshop. Each week a different topic is discussed. They also get the opportunity to exchange their experiences with the other families – a great help for them emotionally, but also for the many practical tips they exchange among themselves.

Between the presentations on anesthesia, psychology and speech therapy, there are always small intermissions to change things up. We sing and dance with the children and parents. At the end of the day there is a surprise for us: a live band plays Bolivian folklore for us and we are asked to dance. While jumping and dancing, we quickly run out of breath and become very aware of the altitude – after all, we are at an altitude of 4,200 meters in one of the highest-located major cities in the world and have only had 24 hours to acclimatize.

Surgery mission to Caranavi

The next morning, our Colombian surgeon Dr. Jorge Navarro arrives. He will accompany us on the aid mission to Caranavi. The goal is to promote the exchange of experiences and know-how between our partners, even across national borders. At 9 a.m., eleven of us set off in a mini-van for Caranavi, 150 kilometers away. We drive over winding roads from an altitude of 4,200 meters down to 600 meters. We cover the last 100 kilometers on a dusty gravel road. Bit by bit, barren mountain landscape gives way to lush green cloud forests.

After five hours’ journey we arrive in Caranavi. When we get out of the bus, we walk into a wall of heat with extreme humidity. We would like to take a shower before continuing on to the clinic, but no luck: at best, there is water in the hotel once a day around 6:30 a.m., and only in limited quantity. The locals are waiting for rain, which does not seem to want to come. With our clothes clinging to our bodies, we go to lunch and from there to the city hall for an official reception, followed by a presentation by Dr. Mamani and many expressions of gratitude. Afterwards, we finally get to meet the cleft families, who are waiting for us at the hospital. Dr. Mamani and Dr. Navarro examine the patients and plan the operations for the next day.

The long-awaited surgery.

The surgical team spends the entire next day in the operating room. Dr. Mamani and Dr. Navarro have the chance to exchange know-how and profit from each other’s experience. While they work, the patients who have not yet had their turn are cared for by our interdisciplinary team. Speech therapist Claudia, functional therapist Magaly Cordero, psychologist Violeta and dentist Virginia Flores are part of the team on this mission.

One of our little patients is Quetsalli. Quetsalli’s face is marked by a large cleft. She is already three years old, but has not been able to receive surgery until now. Her father has brought her to see our mission team: They spent more than 15 hours on the road. Quetsalli has four other siblings and lives with her parents in a small hut. The parents are simple farmers; the family has to live on 150 euros a month. We are impressed by the composure of the little girl, she does not even cry when it is her turn to go into the operating room. When she wakes up from the anesthesia after the successful operation and her father can embrace her again, she seems completely at ease.

After 12 hours in the OT, the team is exhausted, but in good spirit: They have helped many children to finally live their lives without the burden of an untreated cleft.

On the morning of our last day in Caranavi, Dr. Mamani discharges the patients. We say goodbye and there are many words of thanks and heartfelt hugs.