A Senior Traveler Veers Off the Tourist Trail in Lima, Peru, to Find Rewarding Adventure in the Human Spirit
Checking the boxes off bucket lists is one way to travel, especially if you are limited by time. But by traveling slowly, I am able to see well beyond the tourist lines. With the blessings of an open schedule, health, and modest retirement income, I like to explore a local community, establish relationships, and learn more about the world outside my comfort zone.
That’s how I came to know Aniquem, Peru’s only rehabilitation center for child victims of serious burns. I met a local friend and she introduced me to this wonderful place.
A Critical Service
From the outside, Aniquem looks like most houses on a typical residential street in the Jesús María district of Peru’s capital city of Lima. But behind the open, wrought-iron gates, touching stories of love and human compassion unfold every day.
Aniquem is the Spanish acronym for Asociación de Ayuda al Niño Quemado, the Association of Help for the Burned Child, a private, non-profit organization co-founded in 1999 by local plastic surgeon Dr. Victor Raúl Rodríguez Vilca and now-retired general practitioner Dr. Mary Malca Villa.
Desperate parents bring their children here from every part of this country of more than 31 million people, seeking the critical, long-term rehabilitative care that isn’t available anywhere else in Peru. Teams of staff members and volunteers scurry about with a quiet efficiency to ease the pain and devastation that serious life-scarring burns inflict on children and their families.
Why the Need?
Hospitals here are well-equipped to provide immediate, emergency care, but the extensive needs of victims with serious burns require long-term attention to physical rehabilitation and emotional trauma.
Dr. Vilca saw the problems first-hand in the 1990s when he was a pediatric plastic surgeon at the Children’s Hospital in Lima. Ninety-five percent of the patients came from the poorest communities, he said, living in homes where large pots of water are routinely heated to boiling for cooking and washing. More than two-thirds of the burns children suffer are scaldings involving these containers and the kids weren’t getting the follow-up care they needed. “We had to provide (for) that,” he said.
Today, with continuing help from dedicated volunteers, international corporate sponsors, private donors and a small but devoted staff, the families of children with catastrophic burns in Peru now have a way to put their lives back together with hope for a brighter future.
One Victim’s Story
Yarumi Blas Calixto is typical of the anguished mothers who come to Aniquem. On December 28, 2017, she left a boiling cauldron, intended for bathing, on the floor of their one-room home. In a single, tragic moment of distraction, the family’s life turned upside down when Calixto’s one-year-old daughter maneuvered her walker to the side of the kettle and fell in head-first.
The Peruvian government provided hospital medical care for the emergency, but not for rehabilitation. Now the baby needs specialized pressure garments to help the wounds heal, and the mother needs counseling to help her cope with the tragedy.
“That’s a problem,” said Dr. Villa, after asking a visitor to wait while she wrote detailed instructions to friends at a nearby publicly funded hospital, pleading for the additional surgery that one of her Aniquem patients desperately needs.
“They leave the hospital with complications, big problems,” Villa said. “I send them back for surgery. The hospital staff sends them here. It’s silly how it works.”
Calixto said her daughter has “seen major improvement,” but more surgeries are needed, and there is no insurance. Tears stream down her cheeks in sorrow and shame, not uncommon among the parents of victims. She knows Aniquem is all she has for her daughter. And for herself, since Aniquem provides psychological counseling for her and others like her.
Fundraising for the non-profit organization is often difficult, but a volunteer staff of four ensures that money is available for all who require Aniquem’s services. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
But cases continue to mount and the patients’ needs continue to grow. Since 1999, nearly 5,000 burn survivors – children, adolescents and adults – have been helped by Aniquem through physical and psychosocial rehabilitation, emotional support and reintegration into society. Every year as many as 400 new patients seek what only Aniquem provides.
Ceci Rodriguez Conamero runs the financial arm of the operations that raises about a million Peruvian soles a year, little more than US$300,000, which is “never enough,” she said.
Services cost from 3,000 to 5,000 Peruvian soles a year per child, pushing the annual budget to 1.2 million soles, about US$400,000. An annual radiothon, other fundraisers and corporate sponsorships supplement the program’s needs, which includes funding for 17 paid staff members, more than half of them therapists.
“No, we’re never discouraged,” Conamero said. “But sometimes it’s very difficult.”
“We can’t say no,” said Dr. Vilca, who is president of Aniquem. “They come from all over the country. There are no other places.”
How I Learned of Aniquem
I was introduced to Aniquem by Dr. Villa, aka “Dr. Mary,” who also taught me about many aspects of cultural life in Lima that aren’t found in the tour guides.
Despite her modest report that she volunteered at the clinic, I discovered that she helped start it almost 20 years ago, and is still an integral part of its daily activities and fundraising events.
With Mary as my guide, we glided around the departments of the three-story house. Everywhere she went, she offered guidance, care and encouragement to patients and staff alike, all of whom she seemed to know on a first-name basis, like they were family.
I found the work of the staff and volunteers at once disturbing and heartwarming. Through rigorous long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological counseling, Aniquem staff work closely with child burn victims and their families to heal their deeply scarred bodies and minds, preparing them for return to society in a South American culture particularly sensitive to disfigurement.
Giving Travel Real Meaning
In my own travels through Peru, I’ve marveled at Machu Picchu, slept in the Sacred Valley, hiked the majestic Andes, lived with the descendants of Incas at Lake Titicaca, stood by the mysteries of the ancient Nazca lines and explored the historic cities of Cusco, Arequipa, Puno and Lima – all inspiring, richly satisfying and humbling experiences.
But none moved me more than the burned face of a child in his mother’s loving arms, being treated and comforted by people whose compassionate commitment to care seems limitless.
While the human spirit on display may not be unique in the world, it reinforces the notion in a traveler that our hearts beat the same wherever we are.
Our day-to-day lives and customs may differ, but the values we share as human beings, those fundamental emotions we hold in common, are the real, raw stuff of life. These are the kinds of adventures that, as a traveler, I crave.