The local shamans of the forest are dying out. Most are in their sixties, as is Adolfo of El Chino, a small village of some 200 people on the Tahuayo River in the Peruvian Amazon. Adolfo, and Pasquala, the ancient shaman and mother-in-law of one of the village’s female leaders, are herbalists, spiritualists and people that villagers have long applied to for advice with illness and family issues. Pashquita, as she is now known, is falling away into her world of spirits, living less and less in the land of the living, as she ages. Adolfo still does treatments with his many fragrant bottles of sugar cane rum-preserved forest medicines and encantations with feathered sticks.
However, shamanic treatments, which often count on the emotional state of the patient, can’t cure a truly vicious disease, or one that has progressed too far along. Cancer or deep internal infections can be too challenging for a healer of the forest.
Infections, snake bites, machete cuts too big and needing stitches, a broken leg that has gone septic, each of these presents the kind of demand that Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, was hoping to provide answers for in this part of the Amazon. Dolly, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who founded the Tahuayo Lodge, created AoA to address the social, economic, and health needs of the river communities of El Chino and the other river communities that comprise this part of the Amazon basin some twelve hours up river from Iquitos Peru. Born in Iquitos herself, Dolly understood that simply providing a clinic and options for Western health care wasn’t enough. Old traditions run deeply, and sometimes at a cost.
Amalia, a young village woman in nearby San Pedro, had three children by different men in her twenties. By her late thirties, she had begun to have miscarriages. Dolly heard of the problem. Under Dolly’s guidance, AoA was working hard to improve health care, including women’s health, by providing nurses to the village women. Amalia wouldn’t see a nurse about her miscarriages. She continued to take natural remedies to control her “female problem.” At the time, women weren’t aware or educated enough to understand symptoms, nor did they understand the notion of preventive care. With the help of Angels of the Amazon, the same women today are far more likely to take preventions and be more willing to seek care at the local clinic.
Eventually Dolly realized the situation had become grave.
“I’d go visit her and the smell would be awful,” Dolly said. “I knew we had to do something. In all the years she had never had a pap smear, never been checked. This woman, now in her forties, had ovarian cancer and it had spread all through her body.
“By then her younger kids ranged from 9-12. The doctor told us that the only option was to send her to Lima. For some reason she was demanding beets, carrots and potatoes- all vegetables that were not available here. We have to fly them in at great expense from the jungle city. Finally I had to explain to her husband that her cancer was too far advanced.”
The treatment was extensive, the chemo would take a long time and take a lot out of her. Her kids wouldn’t be able to accompany her to Lima. The doctor’s prognosis was not good, but Angels of the Amazon was ready to pay for the travel and the treatment anyway to give her a chance.
Ultimately, Amalia chose to remain in San Pedro, and she died with her family around her. This is a sad ending for this family. As Dolly recounts, it might have been avoided had an earlier intervention and preventative tests been administered as soon as she began having miscarriages.
A dependence on traditional methods has its place, but there is a time when Western practices have to take over- preferably while there’s still a chance to salvage a life. Dolly is working hard to change hearts and minds about just where that line is drawn. Education is the primary key. By helping the women better understand the workings of their bodies, and the responsibility they have to their families by staying well, Angels of the Amazon is slowly helping change prejudices towards Western medicine. “Angels of the Amazon welcomes the professionals who generously donate their time and knowledge to train the staff at the Esperanza clinic, and who care for the Tahuayo area patients.” Says Dolly, who appreciates all the help she can get. Dolly herself has become quite adept at recognizing symptoms from having spent so much time with these health professionals.
“It’s not about taking away traditional ways of treating illness,” Dolly explains. “There’s an important place for that. However, when it comes to something like cancer, a shaman or an herbalist is limited. We’re trying to help women learn the symptoms, and when something is beyond the skills of a local healer. If we can do that, we can save lives. When it’s a provider this is even more important- a mother or father, for example.”
The health clinic in Esperanza Village today serves thirteen villages formally, and informally, at least four more. And that is without running water. With three trained nurses, and a manned lab able to provide swift lab results, it is now able to help birthing mothers and overnight patients as well as those in transit to city hospitals.
None of this was possible without the help of Angels of the Amazon, where Dolly is walking the delicate balance of cooperation and education to improve the lives of the villages and community people. The best news is that it’s working. As the women learn to trust when to use local remedies and when to seek Western care, the quality of health care has improved. Women’s knowledge has expanded, and that has benefitted the families all along the river. With the dedicated help of the sponsors behind Angels of the Amazon, village women are making better choices, and as a result, their families are living better lives.