Rising senior brings medical treatment down the Amazon

Luke Wittman spent a week on a medical boat traveling through the Brazilian rainforest

· July 16, 2014, 8:34 pm   ·  Updated July 17, 2014, 12:28 am

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While some traveled to Brazil to paint their faces and cheer for their home country’s soccer teams, one Penn student found himself floating far from the pitch.

Rising College senior Luke Wittman spent two weeks in Santarem, Brazil, providing free healthcare for impoverished local communities with the non-profit organization Amizade.

During the trip, he spent a week on a medical boat with about 25 students, nurses, doctors, crew members and translators traveling down the Amazon River, treating patients in over 10 different rural communities and sleeping on hammocks.

"It was a trilingual boat. The doctors were from Cuba, and so we had people speaking English, Spanish and Portuguese," Wittman — who didn't speak the native language before his departure — said. "The medical terminology was very different from what they were trying to say... It was frustrating at times, but for the most part, it was actually pretty smooth."

Because the communities are scattered throughout the rainforest, the group took side trips to smaller communities via speedboat. Other times, groups came to them.

“The communities are extremely rural, poor and impoverished. It’s such a crazy juxtaposition to the cities in the south where they have wealth,” Wittman said of the Brazilian communities. “Every day, we would [visit] two different communities.”

Because of the size of the staff and the shortage of doctors in Brazil, Wittman and the other students were able to take on tasks beyond their experience in the U.S. Wittman drew blood and performed lab tests for HIV and syphilis. He also served as a pharmacist and dental assistant.

“You [got to] work with the patient from start to finish, and you’re able to give them a diagnosis by the end of it,” Wittman said, noting that although he had to deliver news of HIV or syphilis, the patients’ knowledge of their diagnoses had a “huge impact on them.”

Nights were spent learning about tropical diseases prevalent in the area. Using this information, the group also checked children for trachoma, an easily cured disease that affects about 7 percent of the rural Brazilian population and eventually leads to blindness.

Working with the patients, Wittman was glad to see how appreciative they were to the care.

“There was just a mass of people lined up down the mountain waiting for us before we even got there,” Wittman said. “And that was just cool to see how many people truly appreciated what we were doing, and how vital and necessary it was for them that we were coming.”

Calling Brazil’s system of universal free healthcare something that “looks better on paper that it is in real life,” Wittman said that waitlists for to see specialists can last for years, and without wealth and a private insurance plan, getting the appropriate care is virtually impossible, sometimes requiring multiple week trips to see a doctor.

Wittman found that the sense of community easily overcame the language barrier. In one instance, he wanted to attend a Sunday church service, and had to communicate with the native Brazilians.

“The two biggest aspects of their culture are soccer and faith,” Wittman said. “So when I wanted to go to church that Sunday... I taught him how to say ‘church’ in English.”

In one community, the group came upon a dirt soccer field with crude goals made from wooden planks and played a pickup game with local kids.

“There was a little fan section sitting on a hill with people from the community,” Wittman said. “It’s cool how you can play a whole game of soccer without knowing your teammates’ language... I felt really connected to the community, even though I was a complete outsider.”

Wittman said that the World Cup’s shadow loomed even in the rural communities he visited. Signs reading “Our kids need food, not futbol,” protested the massive national expenditure.

“Thirty billion dollars could have done a lot for Brazil, and it showed that they did have the money to fix the healthcare problem or the literacy problem,” Wittman said. “But instead, they used it all on the World Cup. There was a lot of controversy surrounding it.”

With that said, national pride was rampant, with each Brazilian game eliciting fireworks and celebrations. Wittman compared game days to “national holidays.”

Wittman — who hopes to go into pediatrics into the future — found his favorite part in the children he treated.

"Obviously I like working a lot more with kids when I can talk with them, joke with them, kid with them in English," Wittman said. "It makes me very excited to get med school over with so that I can actually practice."

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