Third in an October Mission Month Series
By Joanne Flemming
DE PERE -- What Fr. Brian Prunty, O.Praem., remembers most from his first trip as a medical missionary along the Napo River in northeastern Peru are the insects.
He said his face was all swollen from insect bites when he returned to Santa Clotilda, the mission where he served, after seven days on the river bringing medical help to villages.
Fr. Jack McCarthy, O.Praem., the mission's medical director, put him on antibiotics and other drugs and sent him to the hospital for two days until the swelling was gone.
Fr. Prunty, a native of Bear Creek, became pastor at St. Norbert College Parish on Sept. 1. He served in South America from 1986 to 1990 as a physician assistant, mainly in Santa Clotilda, but also in Lima, the capital.
Serving the under-served had always been his goal, said Fr. Prunty, who was ordained in 1965.
While serving as pastor of St. Willibrord Parish in south Chicago's inner city in the 1970s he decided to become a physician assistant. The area was known for its violence and, he said, he had seen too many students from the parish high school -- 90% of whom were African-American -- murdered.
He recalled being in the hospital when two of his female students were dying and being bothered by the racism he saw. After an associate challenged him to attend medical school, he applied to St. Louis University Medical School.
He earned a degree in 2½ years as a physician assistant, then worked for a year at the Cook County jail before becoming a missionary in Peru after attending the Maryknoll Fathers' Spanish language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Santa Clotilda is in the jungles east of the Andes Mountains just below the equator, near where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet.
To reach the village from the east, people had to travel several thousand miles to the last navigable port on the Amazon River, then take a three-hour boat ride, followed by a 3½-mile walk through the jungle. There, they boarded a speed boat for a five-hour ride to Santa Clotilda.
In the late 1980s, the village, which had a single sidewalk running through the middle of it, had a population of around 1,000, Fr. Prunty recalled. There was no telephone, so Fr. Prunty used a short wave radio to talk to his family a couple times a month.
The parish church had a large primary through middle school with an enrollment of 700, plus some high school students.
The 28-bed hospital's medical staff performed surgeries, delivered babies and treated patients for snake bites, parasites, poisoning and injuries. The hospital had electricity only from 6 to 9 p.m.
The medical staff dealt with public health problems and tried to teach the people about sanitation and how to avoid parasites.
He described the Native Americans the hospital served as "generous, quiet and kind."
Although these farmers and fishers lived a simple life, "I think they were the least poor people I've met," he said.
They did not use money. Instead, they bartered for services at the hospital, bringing chickens if they stayed a day or two, a pig if they stayed several weeks.
Fr. Prunty found them to be a "spiritual people," second generation Christians.
Once a month he made a seven-day boat trip up or down the Napo River, stopping at villages along the way. After treating the people, he "occasionally ... put a stole on and baptized the children, married the people who were ready for marriage and ... (sometimes) buried the dead."
Fr. Prunty returned to the Cook County jail in 1990 as one of 14 full-time physician assistants and 12 full-time physicians.
When he worked at the jail before going to Peru, the population averaged 4,000. Today, he said, it is 12,000. More than 100,000 inmates pass through it every year. Most are young African-Americans or Hispanics, though some are senior citizens.
Their health problems are those of poor people who "don't have the ability to take care of oneself," including tuberculosis, HIV, street drugs, drug and/or alcohol withdrawal and fractures. The staff also provided pre-natal care.
"The medical department is very caring," Fr. Prunty said. "Physician assistants have the reputation of spending more time with patients. Our approach is more holistic ... We respond to the whole person."
He said many inmates struggle with meaning in their lives. They aren't aware that they have good sides. "Many are re-introduced to accepting the Lord. (That) becomes a moment where they can change direction."
Only his colleagues knew he was a priest, he said. Occasionally he told an inmate, including a young Irishman dying from AIDS. "I spent a lot of time with him the last couple days of his life," he said.
Besides serving on campus, he hopes to work one day a week in a clinic.
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