With a guinea pig roasted in its own juices sitting on her plate, Napa resident Julia Gundling knew she had no choice but to eat.
She and her colleagues were guests of honor in a remote village in the Andes of Peru — part of a 10-day medical mission organized by Dr. Rosa Ten Boquera, an allergy and immunology specialist from UCSF Medical Center.
The medical group was served first, and the whole village watched and waited for them to dig in to this special meal — normally reserved for weddings and baptisms.
To her credit, Gundling was one of the few to clean her plate.
“Guinea pig is kind of a greasy meat,” Gundling said. “Its looks like you’re eating a rat.”
Gundling, who speaks fluent Spanish, worked as an interpreter for the medical mission. Her role was to explain prescriptions and translate between doctors and patients.
The 27-year-old was invited to join the mission by her aunt, Katherine Gundling, a doctor at UCSF.
In all, the mission included six doctors, six interpreters, a pharmacist, a nurse and about a half-dozen
volunteers. The group arrived in Peru on Oct. 20, setting up a free clinic and pharmacy for three days in Cusco, a city in the southeastern part of the country. The remaining time was spent in remote villages about a half-hour away in the Sacred Valley, which is between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Whole Foods Market in Bel Aire Plaza donated vitamins to the mission, as well as school materials and toys. Clinic Ole and a handful of other local doctors’ offices provided medicines and supplies.
In the city, the mission focused its efforts on a neighborhood called Belen, which is about 20 minutes southwest of Cusco’s city center.
Most of Belen’s streets were paved but narrow — cars could only pass through one at a time, Gundling said. Most people walked, and the homes were basic, made of cinderblocks.
Cusco has an elevation of about 11,000 feet. The days are hot and dry, and the nights are close to freezing, Gundling said. Because of intense sun exposure — coupled with contact with smoke from cook-fires — many patients came in with glaucoma and cataracts, she said.
Gundling said one of the biggest challenges was trying to respond to the immense need for care.
At UCSF, Gundling said her aunt typically sees 20 patients a day. In Cusco, she would see 20 patients before lunch and 20 more afterward. The patients would be examined for 15 to 20 minutes. Many had suffered from ailments for months at a time, when all they needed was a painkiller or antibiotic.
One woman came to the clinic with a severe gastrointestinal infection after having her gallbladder removed four months earlier at a local hospital.
“Her quality of life had plummeted after that surgery,” Gundling said. “She was 40 years old, but she looked like she was 80.”
Sometimes when the medical group would take the bus back to the hotel, Gundling would see her aunt holding back tears.
“It feels like you’re not even scratching the surface,” Gundling said.
In the remote villages, the doctors saw a number of patients suffering from digestive problems and parasites — much of which was caused by poor sanitation.
One of the doctors who asked to use a bathroom was invited inside one of the villagers’ homes — a two-story structure made of adobe brick. The doctor told Gundling that the bottom floor of the home was covered in cow patties — livestock are allowed to roam freely inside and out — and the toilet consisted of a hole in the corner of the floor.
Despite the challenges, Gundling believes the medical mission serves an important purpose.
“Anything is better than nothing,” she said. “If you can eliminate the excruciating pain for someone for a month, it’s better than nothing at all.”
Gundling, who earned a degree in international studies from UC San Diego, will soon start nursing school at Napa Valley College. She plans to join future medical missions to Cusco.
“I’m studying to become a nurse, so it would be interesting each year to come back with more skills,” she said.
What struck Gundling most about her experience in Peru was people’s hospitality and kindness.
In the village where she was served the guinea pig, Gundling said she and her colleagues were led under an archway of green branches, and the villagers threw rose petals over their heads. Old men played flutes, while others danced.
In addition to roasted guinea pig, they were served lima bean stew, potato pancakes, roasted chicken, an onion slaw and quinoa — a grain native to South America. Before leaving, everyone in the group was given a hand-woven scarf.
“These people literally have nothing, and they give from the bottom of their hearts,” Gundling said. “And they give it fully.”