Dr. Linnea J. Smith, M.D.
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Dr. Linnea J. Smith, M.D.

Founder & Medical Director, Yanamono Medical Clinic
Board Member, The Amazon Medical Project, Inc.™

It all started with houseplants. For several years before starting her medical practice, Dr. Linnea J. Smith, M.D., had a store that sold them. And she wanted to see for herself where they grew.

So, in 1990, she packed her bags and headed off on a two-week vacation to Peru. She spent the first week at the Explorama Lodge on the banks of the Amazon—and by the time she left there for Cuzco and Machu Picchu, she had fallen in love with the rainforest.

The Vacation That Became a Vocation

When Linnea returned to Wisconsin, where she was born and bred ("with a few years' time out in Kentucky and Tennessee"), she spent most of her time over the next few months trying to figure out how to get back to Peru. A graduate of the medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and board-certified in Internal Medicine, she followed her heart back to the Amazon in June 1990, "armed with my stethoscope, my oto-ophthalmoscope, a small microscope, a bottle of pre-natal vitamins, a few doses of antibiotics, and a three-month leave of absence from my Wisconsin practice," she recalls.

She made her way back to the Explorama Lodge, in the remote Amazon basin of northeastern Peru, about 50 miles downriver from the closest city, Iquitos. At the time, the closest medical care available to the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon was a government-run clinic located about half the distance from Iquitos and reachable only by the thatched-roof boat, slow-moving "river taxi" boats, or dugout canoe. The clinic was lacking in staff and equipment.

Linnea set up shop in a thatched-roof room offered to her by Explorama and, by the light only of a kerosene lantern, began providing primary care to the local people. Not only was there no nursing help, ambulance service, pharmacy, or basic equipment such as an X-ray machine, there wasn't even electricity or running water.

And Linnea found it harder than ever to return to her practice in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, when her three-month leave came to an end. So she traveled back and forth "a couple of times" from mid-1990 through 1991, always returning to the jungle to provide vital medical care to a growing number of patients, "almost all of them poor, acutely ill, and with no other available source of medical care," she says.

In 1991, during one of her trips back to Wisconsin, Linnea gave an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio that captured the attention of Jon Helstrom, an architect from Duluth, Minnesota, who also happened to be a member of the Rotary Club. "Now that I know him better, I realize that he was itching to organize a project, and I had the incredibly good fortune of becoming the lucky beneficiary," Linnea says.

The project he organized was building a clinic for her on the banks of the river. Linnea named her clinic Yanamono, for the stream on which Explorama Lodge—and the clinic—are located. By 2008, however, erosion threatened to plunge the structure into the river. So the Rotarians returned, this time building a 31' x110' clinic on stilts to protect it during the annual floods. Open for business in March 2009, the new clinic features solar panels to provide a limited amount of electricity and to power a water pump, rainwater-collecting tanks, a waiting room, office space, a pharmacy, two exam rooms, a room for patients to stay overnight, a very small lab, a dental room, and living quarters for the staff who board there.

Gaining Ground on the Medical Needs of the Community

Linnea herself, however, continued to use the Explorama Lodge as her own home base. "Explorama stopped charging me for room and board after only one month, and has fed me, housed me, and arranged for my local transportation and my international communications," she reveals. "They have been my family in Peru ever since. My main reason for being here is to help the local people. This is a goal of which Explorama has been consistently supportive."

Since its founding, Yanamono has treated more than 40,000 patients—including 3,000 last year alone, most of whom arrive on foot or by dugout canoe and "most of whom have little or no other access to medical care," Linnea says. Services include family planning; prenatal care and birthing; dental care; treatment of snakebite, cholera, parasites, and malaria; care of trauma; and treatment of a multitude of infectious diseases.

Each of these cases for Linnea is personal. For example, there's the ten-year-old boy "whom a medium-large caiman [a species of crocodile] once attempted to have for dinner," and who came in with a punctured lung, a broken rib, "a chunk out of his thigh, and a bite that narrowly missed the family jewels," says Linnea. "I patched him the best I could, and told him that when he gets older, the girls will be impressed with his scars."

Or there's the twelve-year-old girl with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, who weighs only 44 pounds. When her wrists and ankles are so swollen and painful that she cannot walk, her parents carry her in for the medicines that control those symptoms. There are children who injure themselves with machetes when they're cutting the firewood their mothers need in order to make breakfast, or the little ones who come in dehydrated from diarrhea and "go home plumped up like raisins, after being rehydrated (and their moms told to please boil the river before drinking it)." And then there's fearless Molly, who—unlike her peers, who are terrified of getting any kind of shot—comes in requesting a vaccine, in order to get the candy the clinic gives the children afterward.

Getting By with a Little Help from Her Friends

Linnea credits Grand Circle Foundation with helping to make this work possible. Foundation grants support Yanamono's Well Child Care clinic, which offers a physical exam, worm medicine, dental fluoride treatment, a toothbrush, and vitamins to the children—along with reminders to their parents to bring them on the next vaccine day if they are missing vaccines. Roughly one-quarter of Peruvian infants do not survive to adulthood, and, as Linnea puts it, "I believe these simple measures provide a bit of an edge for these children."

Travelers who opt for the Amazon Rain Forest pre-trip extension on Overseas Adventure Travel's Machu Picchu & the Galápagos adventure enjoy a stay at the Explorama. According to Linnea, many OAT travelers, "usually a pretty lively bunch," are moved to make individual donations to the Amazon Medical Project, "which is also a great help."

The Evolution of a Dream

Linnea is also active in encouraging preventative medicine and training local people to become more involved in Yanamono. In 1992, for example, she began training Juvencio Nuñez Pano, then 22 years old with a sixth-grade education, to become her "right-hand man." He subsequently earned a college-level degree and today serves as nurse, lab technician, dentist, and all-around engineer and fix-it man.

By handing over some of her responsibilities to Juvencio and others, Linnea has been able to scale back her own involvement in the clinic. After living full-time in the jungle for a decade, she began dividing her time between Peru and the U.S., spending half the year in each country. During her time at Yanamono, she juggles administrative and supervisory duties with hands-on patient care. And at home in Wisconsin? "I eat cheese, ride my motorcycle, watch the leaves changing color, and work part-time in local emergency rooms," she reveals.

She also spends time with her "sweetheart," Jerry, a self-taught machinist who is "allegedly retired" from a packaging company that is designing a machine that will use biodegradable materials instead of plastic for packages and who is "deeply involved" in the restoration of about 450 acres of prairie in southwest Wisconsin, among other pursuits.

Still, Linnea is always happy to return to the Amazon. "There are many great things about being here, and Peruvian food and the sounds of the rainforest, especially at night, are high on the list," she says, adding, "I continue to be amazed at what has grown out of my little bag of instruments and handful of leftover vitamins. I still feel lucky to be doing what I am doing."

The Yanamono people are lucky, too, to have captured this gutsy leader's indomitable heart.

If you would like to make a donation to the Amazon Medical Project, 501-c-3 non-profit organization created to support Yanamono Clinic, you may do so via the Foundation's secure online donation form. Please select "Yanamono Clinic" from the dropdown menu labeled "Schools." Learn more about the clinic at the Amazon Medical Project's website.