Boats Keep Aid Flowing Along Amazon River

For some of the more isolated communities in Peru's Amazon, the river is the highway and the only way that goods and people get about. This means that getting medical attention can be a challenge, and that's where hospital ships come in.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Deep in Peru's Amazon forest lie communities that are accessible only by air or water. One of them is the city of Iquitos. For urgent medical care, help comes by way of hospital boats. Reporter Mattia Cabitza sent this postcard from the isolated river village of Yanamono.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

MATTIA CABITZA, BYLINE: A couple of hours downstream from Iquitos, the hospital ship, the Chosen Vessel, rests by a sandy bank of the Amazon River. It's been a few months since these American Christian missionaries came to the village of Yanamono. This small community's made up of a few dozen families who live in basic wooden shacks that lack sanitation and clean drinking water.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

MIKE DEMPSEY: (Spanish spoken)

CABITZA: A few yards from the muddy river, the boat's captain, Mike Dempsey, is meeting the residents of Yanamono inside a crowded community center. For the past 16 years, the former businessman from Gainesville, Georgia has provided free medical and dental care to these isolated river communities through his Amazon Medical Missions, with funding from the Pentecostal Free Chapel Church.

DEMPSEY: What we do is we come in to a village, we have food packets that we give the families. Sometimes, we have North American doctors. We always travel with a Peruvian doctor and a Peruvian dentist and a Peruvian nurse. This is our nurse, Charles.

CHARLES: (Spanish spoken)

CABITZA: Charles has been with the vessel for 12 years, and he says he often treats respiratory problems and other common illnesses that are caused by severe diarrhea and parasites.

CHARLES: (Spanish spoken)

CABITZA: The living conditions of these villages are terrible, he says. The government only has very few clinics in the larger communities.

DR. TONY VELA: (Spanish spoken)

CABITZA: Nearby, Doctor Tony Vela has diagnosed an elderly man with a urinary infection and prescribes antibiotics. The man's daughter, Alice, says the hospital ship is a lifesaver.

ALICE: (Spanish spoken)

CABITZA: She says she feels happy that the boat gives them free medicines. She's the sole supporter of her parents, and when they get sick, she has to pay for their travel and healthcare at a clinic far away.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

CABITZA: Mike Dempsey says he has helped more than 200,000 people in hundreds of villages like Yanamono. He first went to the Amazon as a tourist and says it was God who called on him to quit his life in the U.S. to stay in Peru. For NPR News, I'm Mattia Cabitza in Peru.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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