Photographer’s Medical Crisis Sheds Light on Peru’s Health System

Oct 112011
  • Los Angeles photographer Juan Guerra at a medical clinic in Lima, Peru

  • Erick Ortiz, Guerra and Yovany Quintana after Guerra's medical ordeal

  • Peruvian journalists from Ayacucho, Lima and Pucallpa edit their video project

  • Photographer Katia Tapia shoots a knife sharpener to collect nat sound for her video project

  • Juan Guerra talks shop with photographers Beto Rojas and Diego Guevara

That was the condition of my guest speaker on the morning of September 16. Photographer Juan Guerra from Los Angeles had graciously agreed to conduct an intense and practical workshop for the shooters and editors of the TV stations being trained during my Knight Fellowship. We just never knew how intense the day would actually be.

There I was, facing 35 young journalists from all over Peru, some of whom had traveled three days by bus, and there was no guest speaker. Well, I did have a speaker. It’s just that at the moment he was being given three shots (one for typhoid, just in case!) and IV fluids to treat his severe dehydration. This was truly a lesson in improvisation, as well as a glimpse at the medical system of Peru. I’ve been here for over a year now, working with journalists throughout the country, and so far I’ve been fortunate enough not to need any kind of medical care.

Since I had to deal with the workshop, two journalists from Lima rushed Guerra to a local “posta médica,” or a first-aid station. These “postas” are non-profit, private centers where people can get basic care. Guerra was simply too sick to be taken to a real hospital, so this was the best and closest option.

Our workshop was taking place in Villa El Salvador, a poor, chaotic, populous urban area south of Lima. What I didn’t know was the “posta médica” was basically a BYOMS - Bring Your Own Medicine and Supplies. When Guerra arrived, he had to provide his own needles, his own IV fluid, his own antibiotics, even his own toilet paper! Luckily, editor Erick Ortiz from Villa TV 45 who was with him, knew his way around, and was able to buy what was needed.

These are the small things many take for granted when they receive urgent care, but it brings up a lot of questions about the state of public health in Peru: What if you have to go there alone? What if you don’t have the money to buy the items needed? What if you can’t find what’s required? I’m sure these expenses place a huge burden on the poor when they have to get medical care. Considering half of all Peruvians live in poverty, it’s no wonder the government began laying the groundwork in 2010 for universal health insurance coverage.

I was finally able to go see Guerra around 10:30 a.m. When I got to the “posta médica” I was shocked at the conditions: dirty bandages on the floor, sheets with stains and patients with no privacy. Still, the medical staff did an amazing job stabilizing Guerra, and he tells me he has no complaints. On the contrary, he has nothing but praise for the healthcare professionals who took care of him. Had it not been for their efforts, he says he would not have been able to get back on his feet so quickly. The entire bill for the ER was about $25, including the medications. Guerra was also impressed with how quickly he was seen thanks to Enlace Nacional anchor Yovany Quintana, who insisted he be treated immediately.

By 11:30 a.m., Guerra was in front of the group, only 3 hours behind schedule. We had divided everyone into groups, and had sent them off to produce a story using only natural sound and interviews, with no reporter. This forced them to think about the audio and the visuals. We also set up six edit bays and gave them two hours to work.

We watched the nat-sound packages together as a group. Guerra then replayed each story, stopping along the way to point out what was good and offering suggestions as to what wasn’t working. This group experience is what they all agreed was the most enriching portion of the workshop.

Thanks go to the Enlace Nacional newscast producers who jumped in, Ortiz and Quintana - who along the way also earned a certificate in nursing - and to Juan Guerra, who proved he’s the ultimate trooper.

As Shakespeare once wrote, “All’s well that ends well,” even when that includes taking a quick detour to the doctor’s office.

Hena Cuevas is a Knight International Journalism Fellow working in Peru to create the country's first broadcast journalism training network.