News & Features


Research Briefs

In the News

Health Matters

BU Yesterday

Contact Us

Advertising Rates






BU Bridge Logo

Week of 12 February 1999

Vol. II, No. 23

Feature Article

BU clinician to make house calls in remote Peruvian villages

By Eric McHenry

Joan Donnelly probably wouldn't be making a humanitarian visit to Peru if it weren't for the talking tree. As a full-time nurse, Donnelly figured she knew a thing or two about medicine, but until she visited the Rain Forest Café in the Burlington Mall a few months ago, she didn't know how many of the pharmaceuticals she was handling on a daily basis had come from tropical flora.

A conversation with Tracy Tree, in the Burlington Mall's Rain Forest Café, helped spur Joan Donnelly's interest in making a humanitarian visit to the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Vernon Doucette

"I was listening to the talking tree there in the café," says Donnelly, who since October has been a registered nurse at BU Student Health Services, "and it was saying that 25 percent of the medicine on our pharmacy shelves originated in rain forests. Then it talked about all the possible cures for various ailments that will never be found because of deforestation."

However improbable its source, this was a definitive revelation in the development of Donnelly's interest in South America -- an interest that will culminate this summer with a trip to the real rain forest. On June 19 she and a small group of specialists will travel to the upper Peruvian Amazon, where they will provide medical services to the residents of remote villages. The loss of potential therapies to deforestation bothers Donnelly. But it is no less a tragedy, she says, that the inhabitants of a region so rich in medical resources suffer such poor health conditions. Increasing their contact with doctors and scientists from developed nations can help to rectify both problems.

"There is a cooperation between the people of the villages and the biologists and chemists," Donnelly says. "In return for the medical care and supplies they receive, villagers teach the scientists about the plant treatments they use for common ailments." In this way, she says, people of the Northern hemisphere can discover and document new medicines that aren't really new.

The group of clinicians -- one internist, one pediatrician, three nurses, and a physician's assistant, along with a few interpreters -- will go under the auspices of the Medical Civil Action Purpose Program (MEDCAP), one of several initiatives coordinated by a Florida-based humanitarian organization called Project Amazonas. With guidance from Peruvian health authorities, the Project dispatches multiple MEDCAP teams each year to the region. Donnelly's group will spend one week treating people in the village of Pevas, population 3,000, before venturing by launch up the Apayacu River to communities that are even smaller and more isolated.

"I anticipate doing anything I'm asked to do," says Donnelly, "including helping with immunizations, treating wounds and infections, even caring for pregnant women." Reports from previous MEDCAP expeditions reveal high incidences of malnourishment, chronic malaria, rickets, and various dental problems and skin diseases among the populations Donnelly will be examining. "One group came across a cult sect up in the mountains," she says, "and loc