In Cochabamba, Bolivia, 24-year-old Marcelo could smell and taste food – and he was certainly hungry – but swallowing brought only pain.
After six years of surviving on mostly liquids, the university student was very thin and risking malnutrition. Bolivian doctors diagnosed a constricted esophagus, but Marcelo’s family could not afford the surgery he needed.
Doctors knew of one other option: Every year, a volunteer surgical team from the U.S. visits Cochabamba and performs gastrointestinal surgeries at no cost to patients. During their next visit, could they help Marcelo*? In mid-February, Marcelo and his parents arrived at the Instituto Gastroenterológico Boliviano Japonés to meet the visiting team and find out.
AmeriCares has been supporting volunteer surgical teams from Solidarity Bridge for 10 years. In Cochabamba, the team performs free surgeries and trains local surgeons to care for patients with complex gastrointestinal conditions.
When the visiting team met with Marcelo and his doctors and heard how Marcelo was suffering, they immediately scheduled the young man for surgery. Marcelo was one of 26 patients the team operated on during their week-long stay. The volunteer team has used close to $1 million of medicine and supplies from AmeriCares, including anesthesia, antibiotics and the specialty supplies needed for Marcelo’s surgery.
“AmeriCares is vitally important,” says Solidarity Bridge surgeon Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria. “We would not be able to do even part of the surgeries without their donations. We take AmeriCares donations—every single one—and treat them like gold. Nowadays, when you’re trying to provide a high level of care, whether in the U.S. or Bolivia, it has to be in conjunction with medical devices and proper antibiotics and suture materials.”
The Solidarity Bridge team mentors and partners with Bolivian medical staff each trip; the teams perform surgeries together, including Marcelo’s. Solidarity Bridge doctors have taught local surgeons to perform many procedures, including laparoscopic surgeries, which the Bolivian team is now doing on their own using a portable clinic in remote areas without access to health care.
Marcelo is an interested, inquisitive patient. When he had an eye infection as a child, a local clinic gave Marcelo ineffective medicine. When another doctor gave him medicine that immediately cleared the infection, Marcelo wanted to know what made it work. Inspired, Marcelo is now pursuing a degree in biochemistry at the local university. He asked the surgeons detailed questions about his care and thanked them.
“Thank God everything went well and I am recovering rapidly – I can’t wait to go home,” says Marcelo. “I was waiting for this moment, for a surgery to make me better. Now I am better and will be able to eat as much as I want.” Marcelo has every chance for a productive, healthy life – his immediate plans include university exams, soccer and fully savoring his mother’s cooking.
AmeriCares supports more than 1,200 volunteer medical teams each year with medicine, supplies and a website where they can share best practices. More than 80 percent of teams train local medical staff on their visits, building local health care capacity.