In 2004, Ted Johnson, then a St. Olaf professor of biology and director of biomedical studies, and pediatrician Doug Tate ’70 met over coffee to discuss Tate’s idea of taking St. Olaf students on an annual medical study-service trip to the Peruvian highlands. Tate had just returned from a similar trip to Peru with Children’s Surgical International, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that offers free cleft-repair surgeries to children in underdeveloped countries. Tate excitedly showed Johnson photos of the men, women, and children he met.
A couple of months later, the two men were together in Cusco, Peru, pitching their service project to Elizabeth Vilca, a pediatrician at a regional hospital. Their plan was to bring medical professionals and St. Olaf students to impoverished communities in need of basic medical care for several weeks each year.
Vilca was skeptical.
“She said, ‘Are you going to be like all the other Americans?'” Johnson recalls now. “‘They come down here, they set up a clinic for three days and then they leave, and we never see them again. And they do more damage than good.'”
“She called it ‘tailgate medicine,'” Johnson says. “I said ‘No, if we come down, we’ll come down every year.'” The exchange impressed Johnson, and he never forgot his promise.
That promise gave birth to the Peruvian Medical Experience, a study-service Interim that began in 2005. In January 2006, Johnson, Tate, and Northfield dentist Jerry Appeldoorn ’67 went to Cusco with a dozen St. Olaf students.
There they visited health clinics, conducted general health and dental screenings, and spent time with the local Peruvians. Appeldoorn, who initiated the program’s first dental experience, participated in the Interim for many years. Said Johnson at the program’s inception, “One of the questions we always have to ask ourselves is, ‘Are we making a difference?” Since those first visits, more than 200 St. Olaf students with interests in various aspects of health care have made the three-week trip to the Peruvian cities of Cusco and Arequipa and the isolated Quechua Andean community of Willoq every year.
More remarkable, perhaps, has been the growing and lasting involvement of St. Olaf alumni, parents, and faculty in the Peruvian Medical Experience. These doctors, dentists, and other health care providers have helped to maintain the continuity and integrity of the program by accompanying St. Olaf students on the program, sometimes for several years in a row and often at their own expense. Some of them have even seen the Peruvian children they have cared for grow to adulthood.
Ted JohnsonOne of the questions we always have to ask ourselves is, ‘Are we making a difference?’
Tate, who retired from the Twin Cities-based Metropolitan Pediatric Specialists four years ago, is among those who have traveled with the program every year since it began. “I say to people, once you go on a medical mission, it’s very hard to stop. Every year it’s different, and that’s exciting. And every year it’s very humbling,” Tate says. He’s the “only gray hair” still regularly making the trip and continues to serve as co-faculty and lead physician for the Peru Interim, adding, “I just hate to miss out on the experience.”
Three Weeks of Service
Now in its 14th year, the Peruvian Medical Experience takes place over three weeks each January with 18 St. Olaf seniors, juniors, and sophomores who are planning careers in health care and a group of medical professionals from the United States.
The service project begins with a week in Cusco, once the capital of the Inca empire and today a city of nearly 350,000 in the Andes in southern Peru. There, students shadow and assist doctors and dentists in several children’s shelters.
During their second week, the group travels inland to Ollantaytambo and Willoq in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, delivering medical and dental care to these isolated communities. Malnutrition, parasites, and injuries are the major medical problems they help treat. Doctors prescribe antibiotics and anti-parasite medications while referring more serious problems to local doctors in larger cities.
“We’ve kind of become their primary care physicians,” says Johnson. “One of our concerns has been never to leave a medical problem unfinished that would present a problem.”
Meanwhile, dentists treat cavities, which are endemic to the area, and extract problem teeth. John Mittelsteadt ’81, who practices in Eagan, Minnesota, and is the program’s lead dentist, has made 11 trips to Peru. “It’s just an unlimited amount of care that is required. That need is not being met in any way, shape, or form,” he says. “We’ve really become pretty sophisticated in the care we are giving.”
In Peru, students learn to better understand the issues of poverty, different cultures, and how those things interact with medical access and care. a problem.Robert Gehringer ’71
St. Olaf students spend their third week in the Alto Cayma slum area of Arequipa, a city of 870,000 in southern Peru, about 50 miles from the Pacific coast. In this community, they visit homes, work in an orphanage, help in a kitchen, and deliver meals — all while staying with program leaders in a volunteer house run by the local priest, Father Alex Busuttil.
“Our hope is that the students can really get a sense of what’s going on in places like Alto Cayma,” says pediatrician Robert Gehringer ’71, medical director of a Peru and U.S.-based NGO called Health Bridges International. Gehringer joined the program about eight years ago and oversees the third week in Alto Cayma.
“It’s more a week for them to learn, to try to assimilate, to better understand the issues of poverty, a different culture, and how those things interact with medical access and care and quality-of-life issues that revolve around health.”
St. Olaf students participating in the 2018 program spent their final week in Alto Cayma, Arequipa. Service projects included home building, digging a channel to divert rain run-off and prevent flooding, riding with the volunteer fire department ambulance, and helping in the kitchen. Additional tasks in Cusco, Willoq, and other communities included health screenings and dental education.
Jay Demas, associate professor of biology and physics, echoes that idea. He, along with Associate Professor of Biology Sara Fruehling, oversees the Peruvian Medical Experience. Demas says that the primary objectives of the program are threefold: to give students an opportunity to think deeply about their vocation; to allow them to develop relationships with American and Peruvian health care providers who model patient, focused, and committed medical care; and to bring an awareness of how culture influences health care and ideas about well-being.
Ben Quiram ’20, a biology major who took the trip in early 2018 as a sophomore, has benefited from the program’s dual focus on medical service and socioeconomic issues. “It really made me think about what it means to be a physician, what my true role is as a servant-leader, providing care to people who need it most,” he says. For Quiram, that has involved working to develop a simple and portable system to maintain electronic health records for communities served by the Peruvian Medical Experience.
The Draw of Service
Key to the success of the Peruvian Medical Experience has been the legion of doctors, dentists, and other health professionals whose shared passion is serving communities in need and providing hands-on learning opportunities for St. Olaf students. Lead dentist Mittelsteadt, who was recruited to the Peruvian program by his former professor Ted Johnson, initially welcomed the chance to reconnect with the college he loves. But what’s kept him involved has been the opportunity to direct and mentor St. Olaf students. “They are such smart and motivated people, and they’re just fun to be around,” he says.
Two of Mittelsteadt’s sons have made the trip with him. Mike Mittelsteadt ’12 says working with doctors and dentists in Quechua communities helped clarify his career goals. “I actually started out as a pre-med student at the beginning of that trip,” he says. “It helped guide my career decisions, and I switched to dentistry.”
Now a dentist and a third-year graduate endodontics resident at the University of North Carolina, he returned to Peru with his dad in 2018 and plans to return this year. “It’s exciting coming back as an actual dentist and being able to see what it’s like firsthand doing that work,” he says. “It’s nice to know you’re able to help out a little for these smaller communities.”
Like John Mittelsteadt, Lisa Schut Callies ’82 was recruited by Johnson with the enticement of working with St. Olaf students. An internist at Allina Health, she first made the trip seven years ago and has returned several times since. One of her most powerful memories is watching the eyes of students light up as they directly observe health care providers working with patients of all ages in the Andean communities. “This is very rewarding for the students, which makes them more excited about pursuing the profession that they are interested in, whether that be dentistry or medicine.”
Another volunteer, pediatrician Diane Harrington, is not a St. Olaf alum but a partner at Metropolitan Pediatric Specialists, where Tate convinced her to join the program. She has returned to Peru several times since her first trip in 2008, caring for children and befriending teenaged girls caught up in sex trafficking. This important work and lasting friendships with local villagers have encouraged Harrington to continue to make the trips. Several Peruvians she’s gotten to know in Willoq have even asked her to be a madrina, or godmother. “I feel very connected to the people of the Willoq community,” she says, noting that as a godmother, she was invited to walked down the aisle at a local wedding and be seated as an honored guest.
Ted JohnsonI tell students — and this has proven to be a fact — they think they’re going to go down there and make a difference in the Peruvian community. And really, what happens is that they change. They’re the ones who acquire unbelievable benefits from it.
Doug Tate says he feels the same attraction to the Willoq community. “From a pediatric standpoint, it’s nice to see our patients grow up and develop.” He’s also formed close relationships with the guides and translators the program has worked with over the years. “They’re just like family,” he says.
Tate has a special place in his heart for some of the children he’s encountered. He’s helped support five Peruvian kids, who more or less lived on the street, through school. On one of his early trips, he met John Rafael Rondan Auccapuma, who practically begged to be his guide. Tate was leaving the next day, but Rondan asked for his email. They stayed in touch, and when Tate returned to Peru, Rondan was waiting. Rondan, now in his late 20s, is still working with the program and was recently hired as a medical coordinator in the Willoq community and surrounding area.
“I learned a lot with the annual visits of the students and volunteers of St. Olaf College, and one of them is compassion toward the most needy,” Rondan says by email.
Despite the eager participation of as many as 20 volunteer medical professionals over the years, Tate says there’s always a need for more professionals to accompany students and serve in Peru. It’s a life-changing opportunity — both for students and themselves.
Ted Johnson, now a professor emeritus of biology, knows just how life-altering the service program can be.
“I tell students — and this has proven to be a fact — they think they’re going to go down there and make a difference in the Peruvian community,” he says. “And really, what happens is that they change. They’re the ones who acquire unbelievable benefits from it. The Peruvian people are central to the program, but the St. Olaf students are the ones who live a life of service and learn that they have a responsibility for the rest of the world.”
A Lasting Legacy
To make a more meaningful footprint, Doug Tate ’70 and other program organizers recently established the nonprofit Andean Community Partners. Its objective is to improve the health and well-being of Andean Mountain communities by focusing on health, education, and infrastructure, such as providing improvements to water and air quality, schools, and transportation.
To achieve this goal, the nonprofit is partnering with native Peruvian medical and dental coordinators, who have been hired to work with the Quechua Andean community at Willoq, as well as surrounding mountain communities. These health care providers visit the villages regularly, stay in touch with local leaders, and introduce basic health and dental care.
“The secret is in prevention, and that takes education,” says Tate. “The local Willoq school is going to be the key factor here so that we will get a pulse of what they need medically throughout the whole year. What we’re trying to do is to form partnerships [in Peru] with nongovernment organizations and the local medical stations and the local doctors and dentists so that we can coordinate the care of that whole community and hopefully improve it.”