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Hearts Afire

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Winter 1998
Hearts Afire
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On this last trip, for two weeks in September and October, Alejos is accompanied by nine doctors, surgeons and nurses: Isabel-Jones; UCLA cardiologist Alvaro Galindo; UCLA heart surgeons Ali M. Sadeghi and Riad Meada; anesthesiologist Howard Chait from St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica; UCLA critical-care nurses Chris Eisenring M.S.N. '97 and Julie Chait; pediatrician Mike Schessel from New York; and cardiologist Sophie Stravinidis from Montreal, Canada. Before they left for Peru on an eight-hour nonstop flight from L.A., Alejos collected two tons of donated equipment and supplies -- much of it surplus from UCLA Medical Center -- which was shipped ahead. In addition, the team carried with them 28 large duffle bags crammed with medicines, tubing, bandages and other specialized gear.

The vista beyond the dirt-streaked windows of the 70-year-old hospital's operating room is a dreary sprawl of gray cinder-block buildings, church domes, boulevards choked with pushcart vendors, cars, diesel exhaust and the ceaseless clatter of people on the move. Seven floors below on the Avenida Brasil, mothers in kaleidoscopic Indian dress clutch their children tight as they dodge among the rattling buses, trucks and taxis, past the street peddlers hawking inflatable toys, fried bananas, comic books, toilet paper and warm bottles of Orange Crush and Inca Cola on their way to the hospital's front door.

Outside, paramilitary guards stop everyone entering the building to search through bags. Weapons are ever-present on the streets in a country that for years was subjected to remorseless, arbitrary attacks by Maoist Sendero Luminoso -- "Shining Path" -- guerrillas. More than 18,000 people were killed between 1980 and 1990, an estimated 200,000 driven from their homes in provincial areas. Hundreds of small clinics and hospitals in outlying areas closed, putting increased pressure on an already attenuated health-care system. Today, armed guards are stationed in front of virtually every public building.

Though terrorism has been suppressed in recent years, the sharp rat-tat-tat-tat of gunfire can still be heard sporadically in the city. One day, just a few miles from where the doctors were operating, soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons when anti-government demonstrators broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace.

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