Iquitos, Peru — Few places capture the modern American imagination like Peru… land of the Incas and the mesmerizing Machu Picchu, the towering Andes mountains with peaks above 22,000 feet, and the mysterious Amazon jungle which still holds undiscovered indigenous peoples, plants, and animals.
Tragedy has struck in a corner of this paradise, centered in the city of Iquitos, the largest city in the world with no road access. You wouldn’t think that a contagious virus like COVID-19 would wreak havoc in such an isolated place, but it has arrived with a vengeance.
In the midst of this calamity is Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl. Founded by the courageous mission pioneers, Fernando and Ana Stahl, the hospital (known as “la Clinica” since only government facilities can be called hospitals) has cared for the population of this community with over half a million people for 93 years. Though modest in size, la Clinica provides the best healthcare services in the region and is well known for its quality and the dedication and compassion of its medical professionals.
Enter COVID-19 and the tranquility of this idyllic setting is shattered. Calling a national emergency, the President of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, enacted a nationwide curfew and stay-at-home policy on March 15, and all commercial flights in, out, and within the country were immediately cancelled. Thousands of Americans were stranded. By April 9 about 6,800 U.S. citizens had been evacuated1, however the U.S. Embassy in Peru has still posted additional evacuation flights including one scheduled for May 27.2
The virus runs rampant through the poor and crowded shanty towns of Iquitos which encircle the historic center. Patients overwhelm government hospitals where medicine and oxygen are in short supply and dozens die each day. Graciela Meza, executive director of the regional health office, claims that “most victims have died from a lack of oxygen; 90% have died because of lack of medical supplies.”3 Lines of people come to the government hospital seeking care, yet often end up on cots lining the courtyards and hallways. One government doctor estimates that 80% of the healthcare workers in the region have COVID-19, and dozens of doctors and nurses have died.4 Piles of body bags fill up morgues, yet many people die at home and are quickly buried due to the hot and humid climate.
Doing its best to serve the community, la Clinica struggled to provide services. Just as in the government facilities, employees of the Adventist hospital were being infected. By the end of April, 55% of the staff were confirmed to have COVID-19 or had COVID-like symptoms.5 Sadly, Dr. Elard Calli, the radiologist at la Clinica, passed away from COVID-19 on May 9.
The nurses and doctors still able to work were so few that on April 29 the administration decided to close la Clinica. Dr. Milka Brañez, the hospital’s director, wrote, “When we closed la Clinica, I was sick, and I cried bitterly. I felt that I had failed. How could we close at such a critical time for the region? But God has shown me that it was the best in those circumstances.” Continuing, Dr. Brañez said, “We are planning how to reopen some services such as drug care for chronic patients. The viral load is still very high in Iquitos. Since our employees are not fully cured and are still contagious, we must be very careful. I am strong in the Lord and I am not afraid of the future because God is in control. And we will rise again to help our neighbor who so badly needs us.”
In an encouraging development, the first four staff members to become infected were officially discharged from la Clinica on Monday, May 18, and are confirmed to be well enough to return home. Plans are being made to open a few services to the community again, and the first public services for pharmacy, laboratory, and imaging began on May 26.
Alex Maytahuari, radiology technician at Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl, was moved to regular hospitalization on Tuesday, May 26, after three weeks in the ICU battling COVID-19.
In order to help protect employees at la Clinica, the Adventist hospitals in Colorado have raised over $40,000 for personal protective equipment (PPE). Plans are underway to ship additional supplies in partnership with AdventHealth’s Global Mission program based out of Central Florida, Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Kansas City, and ADRA International. However, with no income for a month, hospital resources are severely strained, and they will need additional support to endure the remaining pandemic crisis. Anyone interested in providing assistance can donate at Rocky Mountain Adventist Health Foundation (www.rmahf.org/ghi).
“We thank God and the entire team at our beloved clinic for the care and love that they provide,” Dr. Brañez wrote again a few days later. “We are going through very hard times in this pandemic. We have lost family, friends, and coworkers, but let’s never forget that God is in control.” In the United States, we continue to admire the strength and courage of Dr. Brañez and her team in this crisis, and pray that they will receive the support needed to continue their mission to extend the healing ministry of Christ in the Amazon Basin of Peru.
The administrative team at Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl in Peru who have been battling a war with COVID-19.
Notes & References:
1. “US Government Evacuation Flights from Peru Will Soon Be Phased Out,” The Washington Post, April 9, 2020.
2. US Embassy in Peru, COVID-19 Information, Updated May 19, 2020.
3. “We are Living in a Catastrophe: Peru’s Jungle Capital Choking for Breath as COVID-19 Hits,” The Guardian, May 19, 2020.
4. “Peruvian Hospitals Hit by Double Crises of COVID-19 and Dengue Fever,” France 24, The Observers, May 12, 2020.
5. “Situational Diagnosis of the Health Status for the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl, May 6, 2020.
Greg Hodgson is director of Global Health Initiatives in Denver, Colorado.
Main photo: Peruvian staff outside of Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl in the Amazon Basin which has been hit hard by COVID-19. All images courtesy of the author.
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