My life changing experience in Peru

It was August 3rd 1:30 AM we weren’t scheduled to practice suturing until the next day. Me and my group were doing our rounds in the ER at Iquitos hospital and we were observing a nurse suture up a patient that had a gruesome open flapped skin gash on his leg from being in a motorcycle accident. When suddenly the nurse looked at me and asked “have you guys learned to suture yet?” and I replied “no, we are going to learn tomorrow and practice on leather.” The nurse said nothing while he finished the suture he was working on then paused and looked me dead in the eye and asked “how do you feel about learning right now, on a real person not leather? How about you finish suturing this patient?” I remember feeling my heart and adrenaline pumping harder than they had my entire life. The thoughts that were going through my mind were, me, a 20 year old kid with no medical training and still a few years away from medical school was about to suture a patient… I guess Dr. Rolling wasn’t kidding when he said hands on learning. But I responded “yes, of course if you’d let me I would love too” all while trying to maintain my cool and hide the fact that I was nervous as hell. I put on the gloves, grabbed the suture instruments and took a deep breath and focused. The patient was already in screaming pain and bleeding which made me realize more that I needed to focus and follow instructions carefully especially since we were all running on about 3 hours of sleep. As I did my first suture I was in a battle to keep my hands from shaking so much from the adrenaline. I had heard before that everyone shakes their first time but I never thought that would actually be me but after the first suture I calmed down a little more and kept taking deep breaths, continued to follow instructions and eventually got the hang of it after about the 3rd suture. Then finally I was done, those were the longest 5 minutes of my life and were the moment of confirmation for me. Confirmation that a career in medicine was for me, Dr. Rolling stressed the fact that you would find yourself with his program. The feelings I experienced during and after those small 5 minute was like no other. Like a combination of euphoric highs of every positive emotion there was, knowing I helped that old man and realizing I had what it takes to practice medicine.

But let me rewind to the beginning of my adventure/experience. July 31st, it was the day, my flight was scheduled to leave Houston at 3pm and arrive in Lima, Peru at 10:15pm. But what kind of adventure would it be if things went according to plan right? After I boarded my plane everything was going great and just as we were about to take off the captain announces that the plane was having problems with the ignition valve and it needed to be replaced but if the plane docked again and the doors opened the pilot would not be able to fly us to Peru. (Something about immigration) so we had to sit on the runway for about 3 hours in the sun and even though the plane was air conditioned the sun was still making it hotter by the minute inside the cabin and we had to close all our windows to fight the greenhouse effect. Finally the valve was changed and our plane departed and I ended up landing in Lima at 1 am. This is where it hit me that I was alone in an airport in a foreign country at 1 am. As I collected my bags at the terminal I turned my phone on and called Dr. Rolling and he told me that since I arrived late I was going to have to stay at the airport and get on the next flight to Iquitos at 6am. He gave me instructions on where to buy my ticket for the flight in the morning and told me that there were other students at the airport in the same situation as me and told me to meet up with them at the Starbucks at the airport. That is where I met up with fellow students and we stayed together throughout the night watching each others backs. Finally morning came and we all bought our tickets for the 6am flight and we boarded our plane. But like I said earlier, what kind of adventure would it be if everything went smoothly right?  It turns out we had to sit on the runway for a 2 hour delay because there was heavy rain in Iquitos being that the small town is in the heart of the Amazon. I was pretty frustrated and tired at that point but finally we departed and landed on a small runway that was surrounded by lush Rainforest (the kind of stuff you see in the movies). We collected our bags in the small Best Buy sized airport and walked out front. We were getting ready to call Dr. Rolling for further instructions when suddenly these 2 fragile looking old men that were cab drivers came up to us and asked us if we were with Dr. Rolling and we said yes so they told us to follow them. We were all a bit skeptical and worried for the possibility of being napped of course but I realize now that Dr. Rolling carefully planned this program and that was just part of the experience. As we rode through the city from the airport to our hotel things just became more surreal, seeing the falling apart shacks and unsanitary living conditions of the outskirts of Iquitos made me realize we were truly in a third world country. The kind of country you see on TV in those commercials where they ask you to donate money. Finally we arrived at our hostel at around 10 am on August 1st  and none of us had slept in the past 24 hours and we were hoping to get a good nap in. But as soon as we unloaded our bags the guides that were going to be with us for the next 7 days gave us our scrubs and told us to be downstairs in 5 minutes to head to the hospital because Dr. Rolling was waiting for us there. So then we dressed and hopped on the motorcycle taxi’s they used in Iquitos. We got to the hospital and finally met up with Dr. Rolling and he teased us a bit about being tired and asked who wanted to go home and sleep. Of course we all said no and pretended to not be tired. Dr. Rolling then introduced the hospital staff and gave us a rundown on what the next 7 days were going to be like and separated us into groups. He wasn’t kidding when he said we were going to experience the longest days of our lives. The rest of the day was filled with rounds with Dr. Rolling and lectures from different staff members in the hospital such as the Chief of Surgery. We received a 2 hour break for lunch and next thing you know it was already midnight. I had been awake for 36 hours straight. Luckily my group didn’t have ER shift that night which was from 12am to 3am and I got to go back to the hostel and sleep for a couple hours as we had to be up again at 7am.

August 2nd  7am was the next morning and it consisted of a couple hours of rounds in different departments of the hospital. We took notes throughout the morning on different patient cases that the nurses and doctors took the time to explain to us. From malaria to HIV to amputation, there were so many interesting cases and it was fun learning about them. After rounds, each day we were lectured by someone with a specific specialty like anesthesia, snake bites, general surgery and every day we learned to do something new. For example, one day we would learn to do IV’s on each other, the next some of us were allowed to assist in surgery and learn about the different surgeries going on all while we were in the OR with the surgeons. And of course we learned to suture … The OR was probably my favorite part of the Hospital. It was just incredible how they let us young, inexperienced kids assist and be in the OR. The surgeons took the time to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it which is something unheard of in the US for kids our age. After five days of being in the hospital and doing shifts in the ER until 3am and being deprived of sleep and working out every with Dr. Rolling at night ever after a long day at the hospital, I kind of began to lose track of the days. Like I said earlier, Dr. Rolling meant it when he said we were going to experience the longest days/week of our life.

On the 5th day we were finally done with the Hospital and Dr. Rolling surprised us with R&R(Rest and Relaxation) and he took us out on a boat ride down a tributary of the Amazon to restaurant floating in the middle of what looked like a lake sized river. There we swam in the pool, ate delicious fresh fish unlike no other I’ve had in the US and just enjoyed each others company and soaked up the sun in the heart of the beauty of the Amazon. Dr. Rolling is such an interesting character and mentor, I felt like a kid soaking up a really cool story the entire time I was in Peru and had the chance to talk to Dr. Rolling one on one. I learned a lot about life and what helping people really is from his lectures and his way of thinking that he spread onto me and our class. After R&R we headed back to the hostel and Dr. Rolling told us to get a good night’s rest so we could be alert for the Jungles the next morning so we did just that. It was the one night we actually got decent night’s sleep the whole trip.

8:00am August 6, we ate breakfast packed up our gear and wasted no time getting to the docks. Our boats were pretty much a long canoe with an engine that could easily flip with improper weight balance.(just like the movies or national geographic) We ended up riding down the Amazon for about 2 hours until we reached our camp. Those 2 hours were one of the most beautiful and relaxing of my life, the vastness and beauty of the Amazon and  riding down its river was something ill never forget. I almost wanted to fall asleep from the peacefulness and tranquility but didn’t want to miss the beauty of the ride. Finally we reached our camp and settled in and had lunch. We were all excited for our first jungle trek into the first village. We started by riding the canoe down a tributary to visit a tribe that welcomed us with a really cool dance and ceremony. Then we got to shoot there 8 foot dart gun and I even purchased a dart gun myself(smaller of course). We gave the kids candy and took priceless pictures with them. After that we rode the canoe back to camp and got ready for our 5 hour jungle trek to a village that we were going to do some recon on and give the kids candy and toys. During this trek our guide Ashuko showed us different exotic plants that worked as natural remedies for the villagers. During the whole Peru experience, a couple of us got sick from not being used to the food including me. I actually got hit with the runs in the middle of our jungle trek before we reached the village and I had to squat down behind a tree in the middle of the jungle and take care of business.  All in all it just added to my experience and it was actually a good laugh later on with everyone. When we reached the village the entire village came out and welcomed us (something that would never happen in an American neighborhood) and it was truly a humbling experience. They were all happy to see us and looked to us as heroes for going there to help them, especially the children when they found out we had candy and toys. Unfortunately we didn’t have toys for all of the children so we had to create games so we could give the toys to the winners. We talked to the chief about what medicines they needed and he told us how they drink water straight from the Amazon. This shocked me as to why they didn’t at least boil the water but Dr. Rolling explained that people have tried to explain this countless times but they don’t change their ways because they don’t like the way the water taste boiled. It’s just what they’ve become accustomed to and it’s engrained in their culture.

The whole visit was just an incredible experience. Bringing joy to those kids was a beautiful thing and I still lay in bed at night thinking how those same kids are currently sleeping in the outdoors being eaten by mosquitos and it angers me that more people don’t do what Dr. Rolling does. It just motivates me to continue my career in medicine and graduate med school so that I can go help Dr. Rolling with what he does. After we left the village Ashuko our guide took us back through a different path to the camp where we had to cross a river. And when I mean cross I mean strip down to your underwear and throw your gear on the tiny canoe that was there and swim across. I don’t think I’ve ever swam so fast in my life. The water had no visibility and when we all first stepped in we sunk up to our knees in mud. I don’t think I’ve ever swam so fast in my life and the same was for everyone else. At that point you could say me and my class were pretty closely bonded after seeing each other in our underwear and we just laughed about it after when we got back to camp.

Dr. Rolling told us over dinner at our camp that this day was the hardest and that tomorrow would be easier. So then we went to bed and I set up my mosquito net because night time was prime time for mosquitos and bugs. The mosquito net helped keep the bugs away when I was sleeping but didn’t help the heat and humidity. Trying to sleep in the Amazon feels like you’re covered in a wet blanket of sweat that just won’t go away. I woke up countless times drenched in sweat. The next morning we should’ve known Dr. Rolling was messing with our heads and lying about the day before being the hardest day when he decided to stay at the camp instead of go on the next jungle trek into another part of the Amazon with us. We rode our canoe down the Amazon to go into 4 hour trek into the jungles. Only this jungle was the primary part of the forest which meant it was dense and the terrain wasn’t as easy as the day before. I considered myself being in shape at the time being that I played baseball for my university but that jungle trek really tested me. The swamp like terrain, dense jungle and humidity really beat the crap out of all of us. Dr. Rolling said our guides were going to show us the real jungle and the famous 500 year old gigantic trees you see on national geographic. This is exactly what we saw but getting there was no easy task. Though the trek through the jungle was exhausting, it was one of the most beautiful sceneries I’ve ever seen. The Amazon is such a mystery and beautiful wonder of the world that everyone should experience at least once in their life. The saying “Discover the jungle, and you’ll discover yourself” really held true for me. Seeing how villagers, plants and animals thrive in the gruesome conditions of the Amazon made me realize how easy people have it in the states. People don’t realize how blessed they are to have simple things like running clean water.

After our trek we then took the canoe to this place called Monkey Island.  The island had monkeys, pythons, prehistoric turtles, and different exotic birds. We got the opportunity to feed the free roaming monkeys and take pictures with the giant free roaming python they had. You have to be careful with the monkeys because they are really smart and will steal anything they can just to get a kick out of it. One of them jumped on my backpack and stole one of my Gatorade powder packs and then jumped back up into the trees. It was a fun experience and we all got a good laugh out of it and just enjoyed our last few hours of our Peru experience on the island and swimming in the Amazon to cool off. When Dr. Rolling said “this program is going to be hands on learning and will be the best self-discovering experience of your life,” I didn’t quite expect for me to leave Peru thinking of what Dr. Rolling said as an understatement. Making the decision to attend Dr. Rolling’s lecture is definitely high in my book for my best decisions made in my life. My time in Peru was by far the BEST experience of my life and anyone going into the medical field should experience the incredible humanitarian program Dr. Rolling has put together. This program forever changed my life in so many ways and I am so thankful to have come across Dr. Rolling.

Thank you Dr. Rolling,


Christopher Ruvalcaba

Texas State University