Peru medical mission continues to be Norbertine priest-physician’s passion

Fr. MacCarthy will make his next trip to Santa Clotilde in January

GREEN BAY — A calendar on the wall of Norbertine Fr. Jack MacCarthy’s office at St. Willebrord Church features photos from the Santa Clotilde Mission in northeastern Peru. The people of the Napo River region are never far from his mind and heart. For nearly three decades, Fr. MacCarthy, M.D., served the health care needs of the poor and indigenous people of the Amazon basin.

Norbertine Fr. Jack MacCarthy, M.D., center, speaks with staff members at Centro de Salud, a hospital he established in Santa Clotilde, Peru, along with Oblate Fr. Maurice Schroeder, in 1986. Fr. MacCarthy served the health care needs of the poor in the Napo River region for nearly 30 years. (Santa Clotilde Mission Photo | Special to The Compass)

Fr. MacCarthy returned to northeast Wisconsin full-time in May of 2014. Even though he left the day-to-day care, he continues to serve the mission as president of the board of directors of Pango (Peruvian Associates NGO). He returns to Peru a couple times a year. His next trip is scheduled for January.

“I spend a lot of time every day communicating and thinking about what comes next,” he said. “I’m on the computer every day exchanging information with the administrator down there. I was there at the end of August into September. There is a lot to do.”

In 1986, Fr. MacCarthy and Oblate Fr. Maurice Schroeder, also a priest-physician, established Centro de Salud, a modest hospital at the time with four beds and a staff of six, including the two physicians. It has grown into a 30-bed medical facility that serves as the head of a network of 12 health clinics along the Napo.

“We have medical responsibilities for 100 villages on the Napo River,” explained Fr. MacCarthy. “The regional capital from Santa Clotilde is the distance from Green Bay to Chicago. Travel is all by boat. All of our outlying clinics have boats and we have four of them. We always have at least one team out on the river.”

Medical professionals from the Santa Clotilde Mission in Peru provide vaccination programs for the people of the 100 villages they serve. Common health problems in the region include malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia. (Santa Clotilde Mission Photo | Special to The Compass)

Patients who require specialized treatment at Centro de Salud are transferred to the government hospital in Iquitos, which is no small task.

“Depending on the weather, the quickest we can get a patient from our hospital to the door of the hospital in Iquitos is eight hours,” explained Fr. MacCarthy. “You can’t travel at night, it’s too dangerous. We always have young Peruvian doctors working with us. If there is a perinatal emergency, when the weather is good, we can ask the government to send out a float plane for a patient. “

Pneumonia, malaria and acute and chronic tuberculosis are common conditions in the region. HIV and trauma from agricultural and lumber activities are present.

“We had 1,300 hospitalizations last year,” said Fr. MacCarthy. “The total river population is around 25,000. Pneumonia especially affects babies. The heat is just as hard on babies as the cold is up here. They dehydrate so quickly.”

Fr. MacCarthy takes pride in the elimination of perinatal deaths during his years at the mission.

“Part of that positive result is due to our portable ultrasound machines,” he said. “We can diagnose high risk pregnancies early on during visits to villages for vaccine campaigns. There is a home in Santa Clotilde for women with high risk pregnancies. That way we can get them close and ready for a Caesarean section should it be necessary. There is still a lot of malnutrition. Children always struggle with bowel parasite infections. It’s hard to be a subsistence farmer. The people rely on hunting, fishing and gardening.”

Interest in serving as a medical missionary began for Fr. MacCarthy at Premontre High School in Green Bay. He was drawn to the stories a Dutch teacher — Norbertine Fr. Mark Van Heister — told about serving as a missionary in India. He was also inspired by reading books by Dr. Tom Dooley, a medical missionary. His older brother, Dr. Chuck MacCarthy, now a retired ophthalmologist in Wausau, served as a role model.

Fr. MacCarthy joined the Norbertines after high school. He attended St. Norbert College and was ordained a priest in 1969. The future physician taught chemistry and religion and was an assistant hockey coach at Premontre prior to studies at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago.

“When I joined the abbey, I told the abbot that I wanted to go to work in a hospital in India,” said Fr. MacCarthy. “When I finished my residency, I couldn’t get a license to practice medicine in India,” due to restrictions by the Indian government.

Fr. MacCarthy initially practiced medicine with Fr. Schroeder for two years in the high jungle of central Peru.

Norbertine Fr. Jack MacCarthy, M.D., stands next to photographs from Peru taken by Abbot Gary Neville. The photos are located in a room at St. Norbert Abbey. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“There were cocaine runners, dealers, growers and processors,” he explained. “We took care of all the poor people who worked for them. It was a dangerous situation. They didn’t want us seeing what they were doing. Once we saw too many faces and recognized people, they put an end to it. They got us closed down. They bribed the government people and got our licenses revoked. We had no choice but to leave.”

Dr. Chuck MacCarthy discovered an opening for a medical director in St. Lucia in the West Indies. Fr. MacCarthy accepted the position to work in a facility operated by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother.

“I moved on to St. Lucia to work in a church hospital on the island for three years and Maurice (Fr. Schroeder) went to Haiti before moving to the low jungle in Peru,” he said.

“We have had good support from the abbey and from the Oblates in Ottawa,” he added about the mission. “People are happy working there. We now have more than 100 workers — 50 right in Santa Clotilde. All of the outlying communities have local trained people. Each of those 12 clinics has somewhere between seven and 11 villages in their district.”

On July 1, Fr. MacCarthy began as parochial vicar at St. Willebrord. He said that he enjoys celebrating Mass and serving the people of the parish. When asked about being both a priest and physician, he said “the category is missionary, that’s what is liberating.”

He was honored on Oct. 18 at a meeting of the Mission Doctors Association in Los Angeles. Fr. MacCarthy and Fr. Schroeder were recognized as the 2015 National Catholic Doctors of the Year. Dr. Brian Mederach, who worked a year with Fr. MacCarthy, is the current medical director at Santa Clotilde clinic.

“You never know what you are going to see each day,” said Fr. MacCarthy. “I was there six or eight months, thinking this is interesting, I think I am going to stay here 10 years. It was a good way to spend life.”

To support Santa Clotilde Mission, send donations to: The Norbertine Mission Fund, St. Norbert Abbey, 1016 Broadway Ave., De Pere, WI 54115-2697.