When Dr Jonathan Fitzsimon first went to Bolivia to work with LAMP priest Father Joe Bibby as part of his overseas experience as a medical student, he found he loved the country so much, he decided to take a year out and devote his time to caring for the needy people in the remote rural villages there.
He is now half-way through this experience, and recently on a short visit home to Warrington, he was full of enthusiasm about his work with Father Joe’s parishioners in Paria, the oldest Spanish settlement in Bolivia, and therefore, with the oldest parish church in the country.
On his first visit four years ago, Jonathan, then a medical student at Sheffield University, went to language school in Bolivia and learned Spanish, and then worked with his Bolivian doctor mentor for six weeks.
He said: ‘I fell in love with the place so I went back on a visit three times. I eventually formed the idea with Father Joe, who used to be the parish priest at my parish church of St Joseph’s in Penketh, and is now one of three LAMP priests serving out there, that I would take a year out and work there in his parish.’
He has been in Bolivia since last August and has made his mark in the parish with his busy and fulfilling life. He travels out to the 35 villages in the parish in a battered Suzuki Vitara: ‘cadged from some priests in Shrewsbury’ he grins, driving over hills and on dirt track roads.
Some of the villages have no electricity or running water and he is offered simple food, mostly pasta, rice and root vegetables, cooked in a communal pot on an open fire.
He says: ‘I often go out with Father Joe when he celebrates Mass or does baptisms and confirmations, and people come from surrounding villages, so there could be more than 200 people. After Mass, Father Joe says the doctor is here, and the altar is cleared ,and church becomes a doctor’s surgery!’
Jonathan has discovered the parishioners have to walk or cycle to see a doctor on a journey that could take over two hours. There is also a shortage of qualified doctors because there is no equivalent NHS and doctors are reluctant to work in the rural areas ,where they can’t earn money because people cannot afford to pay them a fee.
Jonathan works for nothing as a volunteer and also pays for his own medicines. He is signed on as a medical volunteer with the Diocese in Oruro and spends one day a week at an old people’s home in the city. He also looks after the children at a clinic at a women’s refuge, giving them medical treatment they wouldn’t otherwise receive. And he runs a joint clinic with his Bolivian GP mentor once a week.
Asked what he does in his spare time, he replies typically, that he has set up a diabetes clinic: he has run training courses for nurses to care for patients, introducing the NICE guidelines we have in this country, and says with great satisfaction: ‘they have really grabbed it and the clinic is now run by the nurses’.
In his leisure time he plays for a rugby team in Cochavamba, which was visited more than 30 years ago by the late Archbishop Derek Worlock, who founded LAMP.
Jonathan said: ‘I love the place because it is just so different from anything I have ever seen. The people work incredibly hard. Their medical conditions are a result of their lifestyle. They have skin conditions like scabies, minor injuries like infections from cuts from working in the fields, bad backs, dehydration because the water is too polluted to drink and they get headaches.
‘They can’t take time off if they’re sick because if you don’t work you have no crops to take to market, so you have no money coming in.’
He added: ‘They are so incredibly friendly and welcoming. Here I am, a foot taller than them, white, with fair hair and blue eyes, and they say how nice you have come to our village! I don’t think you would have that same friendly attitude in England.’
When he returns to England in July to train to be a GP, Jonathan, who served in the RAF before changing careers for medicine, will stay in touch with life in Bolivia. He said: ‘The LAMP experience has been an incredible opportunity. I have taken just as much as I have given, from the people and their lives and different values. It’s been an incredible adventure and I think it’s my duty to do something with whatever skills I have to improve their lives.’
His most moving memory is of saving the life of a woman in a remote village where Father Joe was celebrating Mass on the 30th anniversary of LAMP in November 2009 and the Feast Day of St Martin de Porres, the patron saint, and telling people why the Liverpool Archdiocese were there in their country.
Jonathan was taken afterwards to a woman who he found suffering from an infection, close to death and unlikely, he thought, to survive the night. He gave her antibiotics and set up a drip and then told her son to take her in his battered old taxi to his GP mentor’s clinic in the city.
He said: ‘I went back to the village a week later and she was completely better. I suppose you could say it was my most spectacular success, and on the feast of St Martin de Porres. It was such a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary. The whole village was blown away.’