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Mondry, Novak help rebuild clinic on trip to the Amazon

After working on the clinic's construction, Jerry Novak, left, and Jay Mondry traveled to Machu Picchu, a pre-Columbian Inca site. The scenery, Mondry said, was "magnificent, to say the least." (Submitted photo)1 / 2
The clinic, completed in March, is now open to serve Peruvians. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Judge Jay Mondry put down the gavel and picked up a hammer - a tool familiar to Jerry Novak of Park Rapids Building Supply.

The intrepid travelers were among the volunteers heading down the Amazon last winter to rebuild a Peruvian clinic.

Mondry was perusing an "international adventures" traveler's guide when he happened upon information on Peru.

He learned of a Rotary-sponsored trip to Peru to reconstruct a clinic, the original structure being swept away by the tempestuous river, and found the mission to be alluring.

The plea to rebuild came to Duluth architect Jon Helstrom in the summer of 2008 via e-mail from the South American jungle.

The medical clinic built in 1993 by members of the Duluth and Thunder Bay Rotary Clubs would soon be destroyed by the river.

Would Helstrom and others design and construct a replacement? The Rotary district, coincidentally, was due to take on another major project like the medical clinic they'd built 15 years earlier.

Helstrom reportedly found the message from the Peruvian jungle to be serendipitous, but daunting. He'd been through the experience once before.

Dr. Smith, I presume?

The message came from Wisconsin native Dr. Linnea Smith, who in 1990 booked a vacation trip to Peru.

Witnessing the poor or nonexistent medical care for the Yagua people living in the Yanamono Region of the Amazon River basin, she decided to close her Wisconsin medical practice and establish a clinic on the equator.

Smith's first clinic was an 8-by-14-foot room in a primitive tourist lodge with no amenities.

Helstrom heard an interview with Smith in 1991 on Wisconsin Public Radio. Impressed, he and a Duluth physician asked for and received money from local Rotarians to visit Smith's medical facility to learn how they might help.

When they returned, they persuaded Duluth area Rotary Clubs to raise funds for a freestanding medical facility in the heart of the jungle.

In March 1993, 40 Duluth area volunteers went to Peru at their own expense to build the modest clinic, making it possible for thousands of indigenous Peruvians to be served.

But the Amazon made a relentless march toward the clinic, eroding land around the facility as water levels rose and fell.

The e-mailed request for rebuilding arrived in Duluth last July.

Lions infiltrate

The Duluth area Rotary Clubs pledged their support for a second clinic and Helstrom designed the 4,200- square-foot, solar powered building.

The single structure includes a clinic, nurses' residence and patients' family hostel. Natives donated land for the structure.

Forty-three volunteers - including Mondry and Novak - traveled to Peru in February at their own expense to build the clinic. Arriving in Lima they headed to Iquitos where the volunteers boarded a fishing boat to begin a 50-mile trip down the Amazon.

Mondry found Smith, who's 59, to be a "motion machine, so organized. She had 27 things going at once."

The volunteers, staying at a community lodge, headed out at 7:30 a.m., working until 11 a.m. when the heat and humidity precluded further toil. They returned after a siesta in the late afternoon to work on roof trusses until 6.

The Minnesotan's thatched roof rooms were small, 12-by-16 feet, with cold water showers and kerosene lamps. They slept shrouded under mosquito nets.

"The headline for this should read 'Park Rapids Lions duo salvages Rotary project,'" Mondry joked. Nearly half of the volunteers were Rotary members; Mondry and Novak are members of the Lions Club.

"We infiltrated," Mondry joked of the "ecumenical" crew.

Native workers were paid $5 a day, Mondry said. One of them confided he hoped to make enough to put a steel roof on his home.

Some, they learned, cut bananas and took them 50 miles upstream where they were traded for chickens.

But despite the Peruvians' meager means, the Park Rapids volunteers found them to be cheerful and content.

"They are very happy," Mondry said. "I've never met friendlier and happier people than Peruvians. And they are inquisitive, bright and industrious."

"They bent over backwards for us," Novak added.

A few days before they were scheduled to leave Peru, a volunteer who'd arrived with his wife and daughter, Bill Harrison, had a fatal heart attack.

The volunteers, who'd developed strong friendships during their stay, decided to name the clinic in his honor, the William "Bill" Harrison Memorial Clinic.

Peruvian lifeblood

Before departing Peru, Mondry and Novak took a side trip, traveling by train from Cusco to Machu Picchu along the Sacred River Valley.

"Scenery magnificent to say the least," Mondry said.

The Sacred Valley of the Incas winds through the Andes, home to significant archeological villages.

They arrived at the primitive village of Machu Picchu at which time they boarded a 15-passenger tourist van to embark on a treacherous road, up the mountainside to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu is the most familiar symbol of the Inca Empire. It's among the world historic sites.

"It was the second best highlight," Novak said, the 2,600-mile Amazon River being paramount. "The river is their lifeblood."

Kids swim in the river. Peruvians fish the river. Laundry is washed in the water body and it's a primary means of transportation.

Returning home, Mondry would receive an e-mail from their driver, Luis Solis, aka Lucho.

"Let me tell you that I have never had the pleasure to drive people like you, so happy, so funny and very polite. You are the best in all ways," he wrote.

That impression is reciprocal.

Mondry is hoping to make a return visit to the country where, in March, Smith opened her new clinic, serving 30 patients the first day.

(Dr. Linnea Smith's book, "La Doctora, An American Doctor in Peru," is available at the Park Rapids Area Library.)