The first couple of days were the hardest. At 10,600 feet above sea level, it was hard to breathe. Alyssa Rossman and all her classmates had altitude sickness.
But ask the La Salle nursing student if she’ll return to help indigenous South Americans and her answer is an emphatic yes. Though Rossman had never seen such deep poverty, the people of the Andes Mountains were kind, hospitable and gracious and they hung on her every word.
Rossman, a 20-year-old graduate of St. Bede Academy (class of 2016), recently finished her third year at OSF St. Francis College of Nursing in Peoria and picked up a few elective credits by participating in a two-week medical mission in Peru on the Pacific coast of South America.
Rossman and nine fellow OSF students (about 50 applied) were flown to the city of Huancayo. Using that city as a base, she and her teachers set up tents in mountaintop communities where they provided routine healthcare and wellness checks. The trip initially was intimidating — the poverty she observed was grinding — but she soon relaxed and connected with her patients.
“I was so scared, but I was so excited,” she said. “I would tell anyone thinking of doing a medical missions trip to just do it. The experience you get, the people you meet, the things you learn are just incredible. I would totally do it again.”
The makeshift clinics provided impoverished locals with free blood pressure and blood sugar checks, immunizations, HIV testing, and general wellness checks. Eager and grateful for medical attention, most of her patients were inquisitive and eager to learn more about their health.
“Anything they wanted us to look at, we would look at.”
The work included volunteering at a local hospital, where she observed surgeries in the operating room, and at orphanages where they handed out toothbrushes and showed the kids how to use them. It proved a useful experience for Rossman, who plans to be a registered nurse.
And when the grateful patients had a chance to reciprocate, they never passed it up.
“They didn’t have much, but they were willing to give you anything,” Rossman said. “If they saw you walking down the street and saw you were hot, they would say, ‘Let me make you some soup. Let me get you water.’ They were so nice.”
Conditions could be challenging — “I was exhausted. The travel process was insane.” — but the need for medical care and for guidance was great. Among the stops was a group home for single mothers where Rossman and her peers taught the women how to prevent common skin conditions in infants and how to treat them with natural remedies, as pharmaceutical products are out of reach for most of the young moms.
One of the Peru group leaders was an instructor who’d taught Rossman at OSF and knew she was a strong candidate for the mission. Kaitlin Bailey is assistant professor of women’s health and watched approvingly as Rossman worked with disadvantaged people including single mothers, some as young as 12, with grace and ease.
“She’s a wonderful person with a wonderful heart,” Bailey said. “She was just so open to the people of Peru.”
And while Rossman modestly downplayed her ability with Spanish — “Not nearly as much as I could have used” — Bailey said Rossman impressed everyone with her proficient Spanish and effectively doubled as a translator.
“She’s a very humble person,” Bailey said. “She doesn’t give herself nearly enough credit for how good she is.”
None of which is to say Rossman bore the rigors of travel easily. Aside from gasping for air, Rossman endured a 15-hour flight delay and tried sleeping at Atlanta’s airport. She felt the tremors from an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Lima, the Peruvian capital. And there was a power outage in Cusco.
In spite of the difficulties, Rossman insists she’d jump at the chance to do it again.
“This has been the most life changing and insane past few days,” Rossman said. “I am extremely grateful and already wanting to plan my next medical missions trip.”