July 2011

Bringing a New Dawn to Burn Victims in Cochabamba

A charity in Cochabamba is bringing hope to children who have suffered serious burn injuries, but there is still much to do.

By: Kristiane Valenza
Projects Abroad volunteer
Long Beach - United States

Photo: Gerben de Rooij.
The entrance to the Mosoj Ph’unchay hostel.

After seeing that the burn unit in the local hospital was often filled to capacity with young patients, Doctor Oscar Romero created the Mosoj Ph’unchay foundation. The doctor realized his vision in March 2007, exclusively directing his practice to those who could not afford care and needed more specialized treatment. Meaning a “new dawn” in English, Mosoj Ph’unchay hopes to bring a new opportunity to children and young adults who need more than what their economic and social means can provide.

Mosoj Ph’unchay occupies the space of several rooms on the second floor of the Centro Social Franciscano. Walking past the reception, you enter an idyllic courtyard, which boasts lush greenery and provides an oasis for those who come here to seek treatment. There are two rooms for boys, one for girls, and a small playroom. I had the chance to meet several young patients, including Elizabeth, who was set to have surgery the following morning to help heal the severe burns and scarring on her face. I also briefly saw Constantino, the youngest patient receiving treatment. There were five children at the shelter when I visited on a Thursday. The children looked at me with wide, curious eyes, happy to make my acquaintance, even though it was obvious that some had higher spirits than others. One boy with a mangled arm struggled to leave his bed, despite the urges of Andrea Zurita, one of the institution’s primary caregivers, who was my guide for the afternoon.

Mosoj Ph’unchay is a safe house. The patients live there during the week while they receive care, which often extends past traditional treatment. First, there is physiotherapy, which must be started as quickly as possible with a patient who has recently been burned. The staff must see how badly the child is burned while he is still in the hospital. More importantly, they must see if he is mangled or disfigured. If the burn was caused by fire, the child will most likely have respiratory problems. Most burns are a result of scalding. A scald is caused when something hot spills directly on the skin. These burns cause severe scarring, which sometimes fuse skin together, distort characteristics, and cause extreme pain, both emotional and physical, for the child. Because children are continuously growing, several surgeries are needed in order to keep up with the child’s changing features. Treatment starts right away.

There is also psychological therapy. Many children have problems with depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings of guilt. Some symptoms are more prevalent in certain patients, but most of the children start to lose their sense of purpose. In other circumstances, there is a clear case of child abuse. If the burn was caused on purpose by an abusive parent, and now the parent faces time in jail, the child may feel responsible for the parent’s arrest. These are some of the many emotional effects of physical loss and the reason that Mosoj Ph’unchay needs to have many psychologists on hand.

When it is time for the children to leave the center, the staff starts a careful regimen of reintegration into society. Mosoj Ph’unchay works with parents and teachers to provide a seamless transition back to their homes. There are many children who do not want to go to their homes. In these cases, the psychologist has to provide support back into the family. The burn victims also need to return to school eventually, so the organization also works with schools in the same way. The teachers need to know that the child cannot go into the sun, that he cannot do certain activities, and that he is going to miss some classes due to the fact that he has to come for treatment once a month, or even once a week at the beginning of the process. It is of utmost importance to seek the support of the community to continue the healing process.

Photo: Gerben de Rooij.
A young burns victim keeps up with his schoolwork.

There are three people who make up Mosoj Ph’unchay: the director, Dr. Oscar Romero; Andrea Zurita, the practitioner; and the nurse. All donate their time and their expertise to help the children. When they perform surgeries and give treatments, there is no charge. The peripheral staff (the psychiatrist, the cleaning women, and the administrator) receive a salary; but due to the current worldwide economic state, as well as the local conditions, the organization struggles to pay its bills. It is very difficult to maintain a non-profit organization in Bolivia. Mosoj Ph’unchay has been surviving with the support of an organization in the UK, but in June of last year, the contract ended. Since then, the organization has been flying solo, relying on donations from the community.

Andrea explains, “Some people help us by bringing rice, noodles, and other materials for the children. We need creams. We need bandages and compression suits in order for the children to continue their treatment. Of course, the children live here from Monday through Friday, but there are kids like Constantino that cannot go home. He does not have a home. They stay here, where there is food, shelter, and clothing.”

Money is the organization’s biggest challenge, not only because it needs to pay salaries and obtain supplies, but because the organization is still in its first stage. The second stage of Mosoj Ph’unchay will be the construction of a hospital. There are still children who need treatment that extends past what the organization can provide at this point.

Why is there such a high prevalence of burn victims in Cochabamba? Andrea claims that it has to do with the current socio-economic conditions. “It’s because of the socio-cultural level. Many of the families live in one-room houses. In one corner, there is the kitchen. In the other, there is the bed. Families of five, six members live in the same environment. There is one room, where they eat, do their homework, where they do everything. Then, because of this, when they turn on the stove, it is not so far from a kid doing his homework. Sometimes, if the food is too hot, they will put it on the floor to cool. A young child, who is taking his first steps, will walk right into it. It’s because of socio-economic conditions, social norms, many things, but especially education…If there was good education, the things that happen, would not happen.”

Despite all of the challenges, Mosoj Ph’unchay continues to bring hope to many of its patients, such as little Elizabeth, who needs several more surgeries on her face. “What we wanted to convey with the name is to give a new opportunity to the children. With Elizabeth, for example, they are going to perform surgery today. Tomorrow, when she wakes up after the anesthesia, her face will have changed. It’s already another day, a new day, a new beginning. Through this, we bring hope to the children.” Mosoj Ph’unchay truly is a new dawn.

“We need creams. We need bandages and compression suits in order for the children to continue their treatment.”

Many children have problems with depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings of guilt.

These burns cause severe scarring, which sometimes fuse skin together, distort characteristics, and cause extreme pain

Tourist Destination?

Cochabamba is not normally on most tourists’ itineraries. The travellers who make it to Cochabamba tend to be the ones who are more determined to get off the beaten track (and away from other tourists). Despite this, the Tourist Information Office is determined to get more visitors (and their money) into the area. “Cochabamba is the gastronomic capital of Bolivia,” explains Faviola, a representative of the Tourist Information office. “It’s well known on a national level

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