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Fighting a Modern Disease in the Ancient Andes

Tyler Goodwin was an experienced traveler, but this summer he found himself in a wholly unfamiliar land.

Reaching toward the clouds at 11,200 ft. above sea level, Cusco, Peru was once the center of the ancient Incan empire. Surrounded by soaring grass-covered mountains, herds of shaggy alpacas and crumbling Spanish relics, the city seems to be from another time.

It also has one of the highest cervical cancer rates in world.

Goodwin, now a second year student at the School of Medicine Columbia, jumped at the chance to “pilot” the school’s first volunteer trip to a one of a kind clinic that’s helping to stem the tide of the disease.

CervíCusco was founded in 2008 by Augusta, GA physician Dr. Daron G. Ferris to provide HPV vaccinations, cervical cancer screenings and surgical treatment for the region’s women, especially those who are poor and living in the most isolated and rural areas. Before the clinic opened, this type of care was virtually non-existent. The clinic is non-profit and all services are provided free of charge to those who need them.

“I was blown away when I saw it,“ says Debra Krotish, maintenance of certification director at the SOM. “The clinic is run by Peruvians – it’s totally integrated into the culture there.” Krotish discovered CervíCusco when her daughter, an OB/GYN and SOM alumna, trained at the clinic during her residency.

Goodwin was able to perform pap tests – an exam that detects cancerous and pre-cancerous cervical cells – in Cusco, and also in remote areas of the Andes Mountains where most homes are made from mud and have no electricity or running water. Because the majority of patients spoke Quechua, an indigenous non-written language, he had to communicate with them via hand signals or even by guiding them physically.

“We can have students treat low income or homeless patients here in Columbia, but it’s not the same when you can go home at night,” says Krotish. “In Peru, they’re eating and living with the people. It changes their perceptions. They come back and look at things in a completely different light, and now they’re thinking about more ways they can help.”

Goodwin is helping in a couple of way: he’s working to develop a custom guide for the students who will next travel to the clinic, and has put a plan in motion to send mobile ultrasound equipment along with them. Experienced with the technology due to instruction at the world renowned SOM Ultrasound Institute, he realized it could greatly help students identify the health issues causing some of the most common symptoms he saw.

In the future, up to 20 students will have the chance to volunteer at CervíCusco each year, and working at the clinic will serve as an international elective course for fourth year medical students.

Working alongside Dr. Ferris and other volunteers at CervíCusco was an honor, says Goodwin. And his experience treating the Peruvian patients has sparked his interest in other global opportunities. “The sense of fulfillment in knowing I helped deliver health care to such deserving people has left me eager to volunteer abroad again."

Krotish says caring for patients from vastly different backgrounds increases empathy and cultural sensitivity, and the program affords students an opportunity to collaborate with other health science students and professionals in a real work setting.

But it’s also about helping people with fewer resources live longer and better lives, she says.

“These women don’t have to die of cervical cancer. The knowledge we have needs to be shared.”

September 30, 2016