(Newspaper Article from the Daily Mail - October 2003)
When dentist Jacqui Nimmo took an action-packed holiday to South America she fully expected adventure but little realized that the trip would change her life. In fact she loved it so much that she gave up her life as a young professional in Scotland to live and work with Peru's poorest people. She swapped a comfortable flat in Glasgow's West End to sleep on a scrubbed-down birthing table and left a state of the art surgery to perform extractions with basic equipment in the fresh mountain air.
Jacqui, 26, has now returned to Scotland to oversee the setting up of a Trust, which will encourage more dentists to continue the work she started. But she wants nothing more than to return to the people who know her simply as “Doctorita Gringita” - the little white doctor girl.
In a region where a population of 35,000 is served by just two dentists who do not travel, she met many people in remote villages who had never seen a dentist and been forced to endure years of agonizing toothache. She says: 'one 82-year-old woman walked for five hours over the mountains to come and get her teeth out. Her mouth was completely rotted and she had abscesses. She had lived with the pain not for months, but for years. 'I was speaking to patients through a translator, but sometimes you don't need language to understand. ‘I could see the relief in her face and the gratitude in her eyes and the way she held my hands. 'It was so completely and utterly rewarding - but at the same time it made you realize how much more there was to do. 'I pulled out more than 600 teeth in five weeks. In one day, I pulled out 62, which was good going. 'But you can only do so much. These people need education and they need toothbrushes. There is no electricity or running water in the villages where they live, but Coca-Cola gets through to them. 'They can trade it for potatoes at market every week but they don't realize what it is doing to their teeth.'
Her life has undergone a drastic transformation - but it all started when Jacqui, from Ballater, went on a three-week adventure holiday in June 2001. 'I just fell in love with Peru and the people of Peru. It really changed my life. I always wanted to travel and this gave me a taste of what I wanted to do.'
Jacqui, 26, is softly spoken - but her manner belies a core of steely determination. She returned to Scotland, quit her well-paid job and rented flat, sold her new Peugeot 206 and journeyed through southern and Central America, doing voluntary work along the way. In June 2002, she made her way back to Peru to work. It took two months to get the necessary permission from the Peruvian authorities and travel, alone, to the Apurimac region. The people there boast a noble history - they are descendants of the Incas- but they are among the countries poorest. In Cusco, the main tourist centre, she armed herself with a surgical kit from her former professor and purchased food, needles, anesthetic and gloves with her own personal funds. Jacqui then took a nine-hour bus journey along a dirt track to find people who were in desperate need of care.
Communication problems meant her message to staff at a 'health post' – a concrete block where basic health care is provided for the surrounding communities - did not realize she was on her way. 'People didn't know I was coming but they were so nice. They are so accommodating and friendly.
They just loved the fact I was there. They cleaned up this room in the centre where the women came to give birth and I slept on the birthing table.' She spent two weeks there, then returned to Cusco collect more supplies and then went to a second medical post where home became a store-room. After that, at a third post in the same region, she slept in a hospital bed alongside the occasional patient in a tiny three-bed ward.
Rising at 6am, Jacqui started work at 6.30am and worked until it got dark at 6.30pm, tumbling into bed soon afterwards fully clothed and wearing a scarf to protect her from the sub-zero nightly temperatures. In all, she spent five weeks living at up to 13,000 feet above sea level. Breakfast, usually was cereal and yogurt, followed by a main meal of noodles and a supper of powdered hot milk. Unsurprisingly, she lost a stone in five weeks. The culinary monotony was, occasionally, lifted. One group of Peruvians cooked a pig in her honor and Jacqui was presented with a piece of bloody flesh, complete with skin and hair, which she accepted. 'It would be rude not to,' she points out. The health posts had only a sporadic power supply, which meant that Jacqui often had to perform surgery outside while daylight remained. Days would pass without running water so supplies were gathered from a river. And despite the considerable communication problems, word of her arrival spread quickly. 'In one place the doctor took a megaphone and walked around the village, announcing my presence. Word got out into the countryside, into the hills, and after a few days people started arriving.'
As well as treating those who came to the health posts, she also traveled to a series of remote villages to set up makeshift surgeries, treat patients and distribute toothbrushes.
She traveled how she could - by truck, bus, quad bike and horse, but also on foot. And her willingness to go where no other dentist has was rewarded with a rich seam of memories and unforgettable experiences, including having a Peruvian baby named after her after becoming friendly with the baby's mother. Babies were, perhaps, bound to loom large in a country where families are traditionally large. Jacqui remembers: 'I removed three teeth from one woman, plus an impacted wisdom tooth, she breastfed her baby the whole time. 'One community I reached by quad bike over a mountain pass and then a three hour walk. 'When I got there, the head of the community said I could use her backyard. 'All the kids and elders were there, and every kind of animal - chickens, pigs, kittens, puppies. Every time I got a tooth out, the whole village would cheer. These people were just so grateful. I took five teeth out for one woman and she made me rice and potatoes afterwards. They didn't have anything, but they wanted to give you something back.'
For many women, the prospect of traveling and working alone abroad would prove daunting. But Jacqui experienced no problems in a region where she rapidly became well known. 'When a vehicle came past, the driver always knew what I was doing and they would always put me up front. I always had pride of place. 'I had all these shiny instruments but no one ever tried to take anything from me. They just wanted to take care of me.' One woman who gave birth in the health post even named her baby after Jacqui.
Now all she wants is to go back with more equipment and people to do more advanced work. She plans to tempt her colleagues out by offering short spells of work in Peru and a chance to see more of the country while they are there. 'What I did out there was the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. I don't think I've ever got so much from giving so much. It's quite an addictive feeling. There is so much to do, I have really just scratched the surface.'
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