The family was desperate. Papa was dying, they said. What had begun as a small cyst in in his left lower back had grown until it now affected his belly. It had been there for six months. Treatment after treatment from one shaman after another had not helped. He was in terrible pain. The infection had spread, and he was now unable to walk. His wife had opened the wound and a mass of pus had emerged. One shaman had applied mud poultice, an old remedy that worked on superficial wounds, but not on a deep internal one.
The family was convinced Cesar was going to die, and that now there was nothing to be done. They were preparing to accept the inevitable.
Dolly Beaver refused to accept this. Dolly, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the health, economic, social and educational welfare of the people of the Tahuayo River area, knew that other options were available. AoA had worked diligently to provide a proper health clinic in Esperanza Village. She convinced the family to transport Cesar up the river for more care and testing. The Esperanza Village clinic, staffed through the efforts and funds provided by AoA and with help from the Peruvian government, provided critically-needed interventions where the efforts of local shamans no longer helped, such as now.
It’s a delicate balance that someone in Dolly’s position walks. Where the people of the Amazon long trust the shamans and herbalists to provide advice and health care, if those advisors are unsuccessful, the assumption is that nothing else is available. Without undermining the importance of the role of these two local leaders, Dolly seeks to save lives by gently guiding family members to at least consider the Esperanza Clinic. The families often trust Dolly, and because of this, they will follow her advice.
Jorge, the nurse in Esperanza, informed Dolly that Cesar was in worse shape than could be treated at his clinic. His condition had been allowed to fester for far too long. Locals’ belief in the power of their shamans sometimes led to worsening of conditions that were beyond the ken of an herbalist or the incantations of a shaman. This was one of those times, and Cesar needed immediate transport to a hospital in Iquitos.
Over the objections of the family and with full funding through Angels of the Amazon, Cesar was immediately transferred to a hospital in Iquitos. The doctors opened and expanded the wound, which by this time was very deep, indicating the seriousness of his condition. He was immediately placed on antibiotics to help him heal.
After a while his body began to swell, which startled and terrified the families who were staying, courtesy of AoA, in Iquitos to watch over their father. They demanded that they be allowed to take him home. Yetthe medicines had begun to work.Cesar, who had not been eating, wassuddenly ravenous. He began eating again, which was an indication of his returning health, even despite the swelling. In this case, unbeknownst to the family, the swelling was part of the healing process.
The treating doctor fought back. When the family insisted, the doctor said that that he washed his hands of the matter. He required them to sign a release that said that the family took responsibility if Cesar died as a result of taking him off the treatment.
Dolly also spoke at length with Cesar’s family. Her arguments bought the ill man two more weeks of treatment. Ultimately the family prevailed. The unfamiliarity of the city, the impact of the treatments and the need to have access to their own shaman were all too important to them.
Dolly remembers,”I made a deal with them. They agreed to keep him on the pills, although they were taking him back to the shaman. And they did- he stayed on the doctor’s pills while the shaman also treated him. And Cesar eventually got well.
They will argue that the shaman healed him. I know it was the Iquitos doctor who saved his life. But let them think what they want.”
Last night as Dolly and I motored from El Chino to the Tahuayo Lodge, we passed an old man in his fishing boat. It was Cesar, who turned to greet us merrily. He was healthy and hearty. A few nights’ prior he had attended the opening ceremony for the brand new Artesan’s Center in town.
Herbalists and shaman hold a great deal of influence in the remote villages of the Amazon, and their cures often work extremely well. However, when there are cases such as deep infections, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, snake bites, large machete cuts and other disorders, an herbalist can only do so much, and a shaman’s incantations and potions cannot stop a raging internal infection.
Dolly said that today, Cesar’s wife admits that health might be from the shaman, But she also says it might also be from the care he got in Iquitos. She’s beginning to realize that no one treatment is the answer. And that’s what Dolly’s hoping to achieve.
Part of Dolly’s job is educating people to understand where the line with a life or death decision involving a beloved family member may be- when it’s time to bring in modern medicine or lose someone when relying solely on faith. She realizes it’s a mix of the two, and it’s going to take time, and a series of successes that the villages talk about to turn that tide. Mixing the old ways with the new is a delicate balance, and one that honors both practices. They have a place side by side in today’s Amazonian communities, but finding that delicate point where families are willing to entrust a doctor in a hospital is an ongoing challenge. She knows that arguing isn’t the answer. People with strong tribal beliefs need to come on their own time.
In order to keep the Amazon the Amazon, and protect village life as the unique way of being that it is for its people for as long as can possibly be accomplished, Dolly understands that honoring the old ways is part of the balance. As well, to save more lives that might otherwise be lost to accidents or disease that are too challenging for these providers, her AoA Esperanza Clinic also plays a role. There is a place for both in today’s Amazon, where the two worlds are finding a way to live side by side.
Dolly, and Angels of the Amazon, is up for it.