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A 'very gloomy sermon' inspires goodwill in Peru.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- About 18 years ago, Father John Davis, a feisty priest of the Fargo, N.D., diocese, arrived as a missionary in the dusty, coastal town of Chimbote, Peru.

Davis has worked in Chimbote ever since, although he left last year after guerrillas killed three missionaries in his area and the bishop went off to work in Rome. He's back in Chimbote now.

These stories are about the web of medical ministries he made possible in Chimbote, elsewhere in Peru and, in at least one case, in El Salvador. Those ministries have changed the lives of the ministers, who are reluctant to call themselves ministers, and those they have aided.

Frank's story

Plastic surgeon Frank Pilney was driving to Montana with his family on a ski vacation in the winter of 1980. Along the way, he stopped in Fargo, N.D., for Mass. During the homily, Father John Davis showed pictures of Peruvian children suffering from physical deformities.

Just back from Peru, Davis was reporting to parishes that supported his foreign mission work. He prayed that, on this trip to the United States, he could find some way to help the many children who spent years on waiting lists for treatment of their deformities.

"It was a very gloomy sermon," said Pilney. On the way out, he gave Davis his card and invited him to call the next time he was in the Twin Cities area. And Davis responded, "Oh my God, I've only been home a couple of hours. How did this happen?"

That chance encounter was the seed that has grown into an annual one- to two-week trek to Peru by plastic surgeons and other medical personnel who have repaired about 1,500 cleft lips and cleft palates, changing the lives of 1,500 young Peruvians. About 100 medical personnel have been involved, many year after year.

After Pilney and his colleagues Drs. Michael Messenger and Joseph Skow met with Davis, they traveled to Peru to assess the needs and talk with local doctors. A program was begun at a hospital in Trujillo involving 80 patients. Students from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., who were spending a school year living in Chimbote helped with related tasks.

At first, Peruvian doctors tended to save the difficult burn cases for the American plastic surgeons, but such cases quickly accumulated, and patients filled the eight hospital beds available in Trujillo.

"We could no longer do any more cases," Pilney said, "because the beds would be occupied for several weeks. So we said, |What can we do that can change a life, require a very transient hospital stay and be very efficient?'"

The answer: "We recognized there's a tremendous number of cleft-lip and - palate patients" in Peru, "a higher percentage than up here. We can do cleft lip, they can go home the next day; a cleft palate, they can go home in one or two days. So in a matter of a day or two, we can turn a child's whole life around. We decided we would be much more efficient concentrating on that. Plus, we just liked doing them."

Today, each visiting surgeon does seven to 12 cases a day in the course of one to two weeks, involving patients from all over Peru. The program operates in Lima at San Juan de Dios, a charity hospital run by the Order of St. John of God. U.S. hospitals donate supplies, generally equipment considered antiquated by U.S. standards.

There is no lack of volunteers, Pilney said.

"Surgeons from all over the country have called us to say they've heard about this program and would like to volunteer," be said.

"We could organize to go every week of the year," except for the high costs of getting ancillary care, such as nurses, to and from Peru, Pilney explained.

Airfares of $25,000 for a team of medical personnel are not unusual, he said. Doctors and anesthetists pay their own way, and a nonprofit corporation based at Pilney's office -- Programa San Francisco de Asis -- helps nurses pay their way.

Volunteers started the nonprofit corporation.

"My brother-in-law is an attorney; he set it up," said Pilney. "Another friend was in the trucking industry. He said he'd like to be on the board and arrange for shipments. Another neighbor, a businessman, said, |Hey, I'll take care of the books for you.' Four of us in one parish."

Such goodwill comes easily, given the nature o the surgery and patients' reactions to it, Pilney said.

"There's nothing so engaging as when you do a repair, and the nurses later bring the child out and give it to the mother -- just to stand back and look at the mother examine the child," he said. "The nurses will run out just to see the mother as she sees her child," and to take pictures of the scene.

"There's enough satisfaction in that to keep you going," Pilney said.

Bev and Sue's story

Beverly Bohrer doesn't think of her work in Peru as a ministry. "But I do believe God gives you opportunities, and it's up to you to take advantage of it or to share your talents with other people," she said recently. "This was a wonderful way to do it."

Bohrer, a surgical technician at Healtheast, a St. Paul Surgical Center, said she became part of the Peru surgical team a couple of years ago after Pilney invented her to join.

Her husband supported the idea, she said, so in 1990 she packed her surgical gowns, gloves, caps and masks and went. She came home so full of enthusiasm that she returned last year.

Bohrer's long-time friend Sue Ryan, also a surgical technician at the surgical center, went last year, too. HealthEast did not pay them during their absence, Bohrer said, but Pilney's Programa San Francisco de Asis provided their airfare.

Ryan recalled that she had casually and a bit timidly volunteered to go. "Being a busy mother of five children, working two part-time jobs, I don't have the time -- or take the time -- to help the poor or go to the food shelves or do charity," she said.

Her trip to Peru, she said, was "a totally emotional experience."

Incarnate Word Sister Grace O'Meara, the Chimbote-based administrator who coordinates the program, once called Ryan and Pilney out of the surgery suite, saying: "There's a father out here who will not leave until he can see you people and thank you."

Ryan said, "This father was smiling and holding his baby. It was like he wanted to show us what we'd done. These families were in awe of us."

Bohrer recalled an incident at the residence during her first visit. The eve of the final day of surgery, Pilney called her over to meet a mother, father and their child, whom the government had scheduled for surgery the previous year. The parents had bought sutures, tubing and other supplies, as required in Peru, but the child was never operated on. So the family somehow found the Americans.

"They were there with their baby, these beautiful, wonderful people. They weren't on the schedule," Bohrer said. After talking to them at some length, Pilney concluded: "This is our baby; we have to do it."

The next morning Pilney and Bohrer approached O'Meara, who reiterated that the baby was not on the schedule. Bohrer said, "I think she wanted to give us a bard time just to give us a hard time. But we knew in our hearts she was going to let us do it. And she did. She said, |This is your baby; I got her on the schedule.'"

Bohrer remembered asking O'Meara how she decided who would receive surgery from among the hundreds who fill the hospital halls. O'Meara said, "I don't. God does."

When Bohrer left Peru the first time, she said, O'Meara called out at the airport: "I need you people to come back." And Ryan recalled a Peruvian man's calling a similar, one-word request: "Anual, anual!" ("Every year, every year!")

Bohrer said, "Ideally, I'd love to be able go down there every year and do it. If I could afford it, if I had that kind of money, I'd donate to the program in any way I could, either by my time or money."

Brian's story

Ten months a year, Brian Prokosch is an emergency-room doctor in Minnesota. Two months a year, he works in Peru. The two-month segment "flavors my entire year," he told NCR.

Prokosch first visited Peru in 1982 before entering medical school. He spent nine months in Chimbote.

After be returned to Minnesota, he said, be experienced "a real rough transition. Like, my mom would want to throw stale bread out, and I'd just start crying."

Today, he has similar qualms. He walks a constant tightrope, he said, when it comes to lending money to friends in Peru. "You can't solve the country's unemployment problems, but at the same time, to have something and not help seems also sinful in a nonecclesiastical sort of way," he said

Prokosch, 32 and single, said his medical activities in Peru were twofold: the plastic-surgery program and HealthShare Peru. The plastic surgery, he said, is "an awesome program in which you put a giant Band-Aid across these people's faces, and they heal up, and they look pretty."

Plastic surgery doesn't resolve the country's socioeconomic trouble or any of the problems that cause cleft lips and palates, which are more common in Peru than in North America, Prokosch said, but it does significantly change a person's life. "One of the few things these poor people have is a smile on their face," be said, so to make that possible is "very valuable."

Prokosch's interest in Third World medicine deepened this summer when he spent three weeks in El Salvador.

Initially, his visit was social, to see some of the 50 emergency workers he had helped train the past two years to become emergency medical technicians. But he and the others spent much of their time implementing that training.

Whether in El Salvador or Peru, Prokosch said, he thinks it is important to "let people know there are people interested in them up here." He does not consider this a mission or ministry in a religious sense.

"I'm one of those cultural Catholics," he said. "But in terms of social ministry, I very much agree" with the church.

Joe's story

Chimbote was once a sleepy fishing village of 18,000 people, the honeymoon capital of Peru, said Dr. Joseph Lynch. During the 1970s, it grew to 50,000 people, "a boomtown with the fishing industry and a steel mill," he said.

Today, "the city stinks like rotten fish" because so much is processed, he said. And it is poor, full of barely surviving people who have immigrated from the mountains and jungle.

Yet, Lynch loves Chimbote. It is where he decided to become a doctor and where he feels he belongs. "I consider it a mission or ministry I've been called to," he said.

Lynch, 30, first went to Chimbote in 1983, between his junior and senior years at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. He was one of many St. John's students who have received Father Giles Nathe grants to spend a school year in a Third World setting. He lived with a Chimbote family and worked in Father John Davis' San Francisco de Asis parish.

Lynch, a Spanish and biology major who had studied in Spain six months the previous year, adapted readily to life with a Chimbote family and to work in San Francisco de Asis Parish.

The parish provided "some management books on how to do flowcharts and a little handout on how to run democratic meetings," Lynch said. He in turn helped neighborhood leaders organize, take a census of needs and develop petitions for food . "And intermittently, I worked on medical-dental projects," he said.

He was a translator on Dr. Frank Pilney's plastic surgery team and became involved in dental-health education in Chimbote in 1983.

After Lynch graduated from St. John's in 1985, he returned to Chimbote, helping again in the plastic surgery and dentistry programs.

Today, Lynch is a resident at Creekwood Clinic, Minneapolis. But after Christmas he is heading back to Chimbote to complete the community-health segment of his residency.

He'll work at the Santa Ana Medical Post. The people "have had virtually no medical care, or very little, before coming there, and they have tremendous health problems," he said.

After he completes his residency, Lynch said, he hopes to go back for a month every year. Volunteers and other visitors, meanwhile, established HealthShare Peru to solicit donations in the United States.

Lynch is aware of the dangers that beset the region. Last year, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas shot four priests execution-style, killing three of them. But Lynch said residents of the neighborhoods told him it was safe to return.

"I trust their judgment," he said. "Some of the neighbors in the very block I live in have associations with the guerrillas. Who would know better than they?"
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Title Annotation:Special Ministries Issue - Peruvian medical missionary Dr. Frank Pilney
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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