Tick Bites and Flashlights: On Call in the Canyon

Imagine watching your child deteriorate in front of you with no way to get him or her medical care. This is a harsh reality for Tarahumara families in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, where modern medicine may not be available and local herbal treatments often fail. In some cases, families who no longer have hope for a cure will lay their critically ill loved ones on the dirt in front of their homes to die, believing that the earth will receive them.

This month, we want to share the remarkable story of a little girl named Ana (name changed for privacy.) At home in her rural village, Ana had been sick with a fever for 9 days and could no longer walk. Desperate for help, Ana’s parents hiked carrying her for several hours to reach a Catholic mission. Miraculously, Willy and our orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mike happened to be visiting the mission to hold a clinic. They recognized that Ana was ill and offered to bring her back to Hospital Misión Tarahumara to receive pediatric care. 

Ana in our ER

When she arrived to our ER, I (Jessee) saw that Ana’s thin body was shutting down due to septic shock. While Willy rushed to place a central IV line, run lab tests and take x-rays, I gave antibiotics and pumped large volumes of IV fluids into Ana to sustain her blood pressure. Based on Ana’s rash pattern and lab results, I suspected that she had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. This tick-borne disease can be deadly if not treated by day 5, and Ana had already been sick for 9 days. I gave our amazing night nurse a crash course in pediatric ICU management and we rolled Ana on a stretcher to our main hospital hallway so she could be closely monitored.

Thankfully, our mission compound has a good internet connection, so I ran home in the dark to do some research. The hospital building is separated from our home by a rock wall to keep horses out, a chicken coop, and a playground for the local kids. We keep a stash of flashlights handy for these late night runs to dodge cow poop on the way to the hospital. I had seen several cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever during my pediatric residency training in Oklahoma, but I didn’t know how common it was in the Copper Canyon. To my surprise, I found that in 2017 there had been 78 cases with 31 deaths in the state of Chihuahua. In our region of Mexico, roaming dogs carry the tick which transmits disease. But that was the data documented at the large city hospital. I could only imagine how many deaths went unreported in the canyon where roaming dogs abound.

We fought all night to stabilize Ana, and she showed a little improvement, waking a few times to ask for water and her stuffed bear. But by the next morning Ana’s blood wasn’t clotting and she was entering into respiratory failure. Because our small hospital does not manage advanced ICU cases, we made the decision to transfer her to the city hospital. I hoped for a miracle but inside I struggled, wondering if Ana would survive.

Our mission hospital ER

We prayed with the family and said our goodbyes. Snow had fallen the night before and the canyon roads were covered with ice, making it too dangerous to transport in our hospital ambulance. Willy sat with Ana and her mom in the back cab of a 4×4 truck for the journey.

Weeks passed and our regular work at the hospital continued. One morning, I received a text that made me squeal out loud with joy! It was an update about Ana from a pediatrician from the city hospital whom I had met on a previous occasion. After spending two weeks in an ICU on a ventilator, Ana walked out alive! The diagnosis of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever had been confirmed. My friend went on to say that Ana was doing very well and her only issue was malnutrition. “No problem,” I thought, “We can help with that!”

Shortly after, Willy, Lucy and I had the opportunity to travel back to Ana’s community and deliver nutritional supplements and a backpack containing toys, school supplies and other items for her family (thank you backpack donors!!) Today, Ana is continuing to do well and has been given a second chance at life – Praise God!

Ana’s story makes us marvel at the great lengths God goes through to rescue and restore the people He loves. We are amazed that God invites people like you and me to play a role in His plans.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” 

Jeremiah 29:11

Ana after her hospitalization!

Prayer points: 

  • Please pray for the development of our new hospital chaplaincy program
  • Pray for Willy as he takes on more administrative roles at the hospital
  • Pray for Jessee as she helps coordinate education for our doctors and nurses
  • We are excited to share that we are expecting Baby #2 on December 31st! Please pray for strength and stamina for Jessee during this time (pregancy + curvy mountain roads = tough on the gut)

Thank you for your prayers and support!

The Bustinzas

Baby Bustinza #2!

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