La Paz, Bolivia - Jim Dirck, director of medical supplies: We started out for Bolivia 4 days early as Bolivian Customs
has become more stringent with clearances due to people attempting to bypass
import fees, etc.... We had been instructed that the only way to
guarantee there will be enough time to have the boxes arrive at the
hospital to begin clinic and the surgery program as scheduled is to
allow 3 full working days for processing... Cris and I flew out of San Francisco
wondering what to expect on the other end - not only with getting our
supplies and equipment to our host hospital; but what impact the altitude will
have on us and the team... Luckily, we received great treatment from American
Airlines and the boxes were checked through to La Paz...
After a layover in Miami and the typical "try and get some sleep" red-eye, we landed in La Paz at approximately 5:45 AM... We exited the plane and walked toward the little booths where Bolivian Customs' officials take our green colored forms completed on the plane prior to landing... After a brief visit at the booth where our documents were verified we proceeded to the baggage carousel and waited for the boxes...
We were tired from the long flights (over 12 hours with lay overs) and the time change, but what hit the hardest was the heaviness in your body and how quickly you become short of breath even with minor exertion. This is the altitude at work. It is like moving about wearing weights while trying to breathe through a thick blanket... With the help of some sky caps, we managed to locate all the boxes (I must have counted them three times to make sure we got them all, as my mental faculities were also dulled by being over 12,000 feet above sea level). We seperated our equipment from the supplies as the inspector needed to see what is for temporal use (equipment) vs. the items for donation (supplies). Once this is accomplished we were told that the equipment will be cleared on Thursday with the supplies to follow on Friday - hopefully. Our host contact, Dr. Jorge Terrazas, arrived in time to help with this brief "back and forth" conversation to clarify the status of our boxes and nail down the remaining transport issues. Our paperwork was in order, and while we felt confident that all the bases have been covered, there was a lingering concern. If we did not get our equipment and supplies by the time the team arrived, there would be lost days, meaning less people receiving surgery. We left with Jorge and without our boxes...
Thursday morning we attended a pre-screening clinic with Dr. Terrazas. We saw people with terrible injuries and birth defects that have gone untreated for 3, 4 and 5 years and more due to their financial situation. They have come from La Paz and other parts of Bolivia in the hope of having function restored in their hands, fingers and arms. Mothers and fathers with babies born with defects, children, teenagers, men and women who want to be able to return to work all line up to see if there is hope... Many receive good news and for others, there is the disappointment of being told that their situation cannot be helped by surgery... So many of these are because too much time has passed and their now fused joints, dead nerves and atrophied muscles will not respond to surgery or physical therapy. They could not afford to pursue treatment when they could have been helped... The bright side is that many can be treated and are slated for the screening clinic by Interplast volunteers the following Monday. I should point out that Dr. Terrazas is the only hand specialist in Bolivia.
Towards noon time a knock on the door brings news of our equipment - it has arrived. Cris and I go to help with the unloading and place the monitors, surgical instruments and the rest in a storage room... We are told once again that the supplies should arrive the next day, Friday, but there is a slight complication. The person at the ministry office who must sign a document to officially regonize the donation is out of town. Jorge begins making phone calls to find an available qualified official to sign off on our supplies.
Friday is spent on phone calls and brief meetings to get our remaining boxes out of Customs... Finally, I'm told that all is in order and a small processing fee is required to finalize the transport of our supplies to the hospital (a common event)... I meet with the official liason who verifies payment and rushes off to the airport at about 4:30 PM... The sun sets and we wonder if we need to go into plan "B" mode. If we don't get the boxes today, nothing can happen until Tuesday at the earliest - Monday, May 1st is a holiday. It is just after 8:00 PM when the phone rings and Jorge in a tired, but obviously happy voice says, "Jim, I am at the hospital and they have just put the last of the boxes in the storage room". Now, we can begin our work.