SIKESTON - While Chimborazo, a small village located at about 12,000 feet on the slopes of a mountain by the same name in Ecuador, is an exotic place, it isn't exactly a hotspot for tourists.
Yet something keeps bringing Dr. Steven Douglas back. "As long as I am able, I think that I'm going to continue to go," said Douglas.
Ecuador is on the Pacific coast of northwestern South American. Its eastern portion is in the Amazon Forest, the Andes mountain range runs north-south through the middle, and the western portion includes the Galapagos Islands in addition to the coastal areas.
Douglas travels to Chimborazo as part of missionary expeditions organized by Global Health Outreach, "the mission arm of the Christian Medical and Dental Association," according to Douglas. The association arranges medical missions throughout Central and South America.
This year's expedition to Chimborazo was scheduled as always in March to avoid the country's wet season. "We took a group of 32 people," said Douglas. "Eight physicians, four dentists and an assortment of nurses, medical students and physical therapists."
Not having the paperwork and other busy work typical of practices in the United States allows the team to see and treat more people. From 8 a.m. till 6 p.m., "all we do is see patients," he said.
"We set up a clinic in a building that World Vision built," said Douglas. Advertisements are circulated in the region in anticipations of the visit. "We just take all comers."
Douglas estimated each doctor and dentist sees between 60 and 100 patients each day they are there. "We generally see, between doctors and dentists, about 6,000 visits in six and half days," Douglas said.
Most of the people they see during their trips are Quechua Indians who make up a large percentage of the county's population but have very little political influence or money.
While the Ecuador government prohibits the missionaries from offering free medical care, they are able to offer both medical and dental visits as well as any prescriptions all for $1.50. Douglas said if someone is not able to pay, a barter is arranged so everybody is able to receive care.
Douglas said the team gave out around 9,000 prescriptions ranging from vitamins and antibiotics to treatments for parasites during the last trip. "Pharmaceutical companies donate the medicines," he said.
Medical practices in Southeast Missouri may be considered "rural medicine" in Missouri and the United States, but Douglas said there is really no comparing U.S. medical care with what is available in Ecuador.
"We have more facilities in East Prairie than they have in most of the country," Douglas said. "What we have here is far beyond anything they have in most places."
Ecuador does have a few modern hospitals in its major cities, Douglas said, but most of Ecuador's poor, uninsured residents can't afford them.
This year's trip to Ecuador was the third for Douglas. The first time he went at the invitation from a friend, Dr. Grat Correll of Bristol, Tenn., who leads the Chimborazo trips. "He and I had tried to go to Africa when we were residents," Douglas recalled. The missionary trip to Africa never worked out but the dream of going there planted a seed.
Picking up and leaving his family practice for nearly two weeks each year is possible thanks to Douglas' partner, Dr. Jim Heath in East Prairie, who covers for him while he is away, and by patients who "are very supportive."
"There are people there that don't see a doctor but once a year when we come," Douglas said.
Even so, Douglas said the trips do him as much good as those he treats. "It reminds me of why I do what I do," said Douglas. "It's a service to the people, but I benefit from it as much as anyone I serve. I'm better for having been able to go."