Dearth of doctors: A cruel reality in remote Colombian communities

By Irene Escudero

Pie de Pato, Colombia, Dec 8 (EFE).- Diana Patricia Orejuela’s grandmother died without even knowing what illness she had.

There was no diagnosis because there are no doctors in Puerto Cordoba, an isolated Colombian village of stilt houses on the banks of a tributary of the Baudo River.

Like other Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the northwestern department of Choco, the residents of Puerto Cordoba are well aware they must travel for more than a day to reach the hospital in the departmental capital, Quibdo.

The only other option they have is a health center in Pie de Pato, seat of the Alto Baudo municipality, but Orejuela said that sometimes people arrive there after an hours-long boat trip and no doctor is on hand to receive them.

“You come all the way here, spending your money, and there’s no doctor. It’s an extremely tough situation,” the 24-year-old woman said.

“We don’t exist,” Orejuela added, noting that her community was without electricity for nearly two years because no governmental authority bothered to remedy the problem.

She lamented that she might have become a doctor herself if money had been available to fund her education, adding that “it’s very tough to see that they don’t treat you because you’re poor.”

As it stands, Orejuela has become a point of contact for locals seeking health care in her community. She is the one they turn to when a child starts vomiting or when babies are suffering from malnutrition.

Wearing a white jacket that resembles a doctor’s coat, she is now participating in training sessions provided in Pie de Pato by Paris-based medical NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which covers her food and transportation expenses.

Her training includes learning when a person’s diarrhea can be life-threatening and recognizing other health emergencies.

Since March, that program has helped prioritize the needs of more than 320 people requiring urgent care and enabled them to receive treatment.

“We came in with the idea of reducing the mortality rate in those communities through the training of health agents and promoters, who obviously are not replacements for a doctor but are going to be able to detect the most serious cases,” the coordinator of MSF’s Choco project, Pascale Coissard, said.

The most frequent health problems facing those who arrive in Pie de Pato are diarrhea caused by poor nutrition and contaminated water; respiratory ailments triggered by the constant rain in jungle areas; and malaria.

Over the past nine months, there have been 19 cases of malnutrition and 10 children brought to that remote clinic have died.

There also have been five emergency calls linked to mental health issues, a problem that is rarely discussed.

Those cases involved people who tried to commit suicide due to fears related to the armed conflict still raging in many parts of Choco, where the United Nations in April said clashes between the National Liberation Army guerrilla group and dissidents of the FARC-EP, which reached a peace deal with the government several years ago, have intensified.

One of those individuals died.

Among those seeking health treatment in Pie de Pato was Maria July Perea, who arrived there by boat from the community of Chachajo with a two-year-old son who was suffering from convulsions.

A doctor had seen the boy a few weeks earlier in Pie de Pato and recommended a stay at a nutritional recovery center opposite the clinic, but his parents did not want to leave him there.

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