The Fight of Their Lives

Page 3 of 23

In the summers, Hern traveled far away from med school. In 1961 he went to Africa, half hoping to visit Schweitzer at his clinic but instead crossing paths with the first-ever busload of Peace Corps volunteers, heading into the bush that he had just left. In 1962 he flew to Nicaragua, still under the CIA-installed, authoritarian Somoza regime, to practice his Spanish and roam about the countryside. One day he was invited for coffee by a group of young revolutionaries who called themselves Sandinistas and excitedly told him of their plans to overthrow the government.

Africa. Latin America. Everywhere Hern went, he found people trying to cope with fewer resources even as their populations grew faster than ever before. They were unable to control this explosion; indeed, in Catholic countries, they were prohibited from doing so.

The summer after his third year of medical school, Hern decided to test his commitment. He contacted a Unitarian Church service committee that sometimes sponsored medical students who wanted to assist doctors working in remote areas of the world; they hooked him up with a German doctor--a protege of Schweitzer, as a matter of fact--who was working in the Peruvian Amazon.

That's how Hern found himself at the Hospital Amazónico Albert Schweitzer near Pucallpa, a frontier town of 25,000 with "dirt streets and Saturday night gunfights." Greeting him was Dr. Theodor Binder, whose wild gray hair and extraordinarily bushy eyebrows gave him a constantly surprised look. He took Hern on a tour of the 28-bed hospital, which usually housed about forty patients.

Schweitzer's former pupil was much more of a humanitarian than an administrator. His method of running the hospital came as close to anarchy as was possible while still keeping patients alive. Hern hurried to implement as many modern practices at the hospital as materials would allow.

Most of the patients were Shipibo Indians, whose villages followed the course of the jungle rivers that eventually flowed into the Amazon. Hern soon found himself cruising up those rivers in a dugout canoe powered by a small outboard motor to treat those who couldn't, or wouldn't, come to the hospital. He dealt with everything from tuberculosis and cholera to broken bones and snakebites, occasionally even delivering babies. As he traveled, he began gathering notes for a possible research project on medical anthropology.

The Shipibos' culture was "steeped in beliefs about the natural world," Hern says, and they loved their children above all else. But at the same time, the women tried desperately to control their fertility, usually unsuccessfully. It wasn't uncommon for women to have ten children.

"Their bodies were falling apart, they were dying in childbirth," he recalls. "They couldn't afford to feed or clothe the children they had. Yet the government wouldn't allow contraception, and the priests would tell them to keep having more babies. So they would have abortions." And all too often, they would die before Hern or anyone else from the hospital could undo the damage.

When his stint with Binder neared an end, Hern didn't want to leave. He had fallen in love with the jungle, with its mysteries, its animals and the gentle Shipibo--and with what he could do to help them. He had come to regard one man in particular, Eleodoro Maynas, as fondly as a brother.

During a smallpox epidemic, the last of its kind in the Western hemisphere, Hern accompanied Maynas and two other Shipibo men on a canoe trip to remote villages decimated by the disease. A group of missionaries had agreed to fly smallpox vaccine, which had to be kept refrigerated, to a drop point two days later. As they made their way up the river, the men asked Indians they encountered to run on ahead and tell the villagers when and where vaccinations would be performed.

The first night they camped on a sandbar, listening to the sounds of exotic birds, fish jumping from the river and alligators chasing them. A satellite passed overhead, and as they gazed at the stars, Hern tried to explain what it was to men only a generation removed from the Stone Age. He wondered how they would survive.

Helping people was the reason Hern had gone into medicine. But when he wrote and asked to take a year off in order to stay with the Shipibo, he was told that if he didn't return to Colorado that fall, he would lose his place in class.

So Hern went back. After he finished med school, he spent two years as a Peace Corps doctor in Brazil and then enrolled at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. He finally returned to the Peruvian Amazon in 1969 to work on his master's thesis: He wanted to study the health effects of cultural and ecological change.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson