COVID-19 Survivor In Peru Recounts Fear, Support

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Patient faced pandemic, chronic disease, food and housing insecurity

Posted on Jun 28, 2021

Félix Melgar, who lives in Carabayllo, Peru, faced not only COVID-19, but also chronic disease and food and housing insecurity. Photo by Bryan Salinas for Partners In Health.

For weeks, Félix Melgar could do nothing but wait, feeling trapped in his modest home in Carabayllo. COVID-19 wasn’t the only challenge he was up against.

There was the epilepsy. The empty pill bottles. The seizures. And underneath it all, an unsettling quiet. As if the world had come to a standstill. As if no one was truly there.

“Nobody comes,” he recalls. “Nobody visits you.”

Melgar is one of thousands of Peruvians who faced an impossible choice during the pandemic: go to the clinic for his medications and risk contracting a deadly new virus or stay at home and live with a chronic disease, unmedicated.

Melgar chose to stay at home—and that meant suffering from seizures, again.

Diagnosed with epilepsy at 18 years old, after a serious blow to the head during his military service, Melgar had lived with medication for years, staving off the worst symptoms of the disease and regaining some amount of freedom and control.

A baker by trade, he was used to working long hours, selling fresh bread to make ends meet for his family. But that was before the pandemic struck. And before the unthinkable happened: Melgar’s own bout with COVID-19.

Unexpected Results

Doctors had warned him a positive test would be dangerous. It wasn’t just the epilepsy they were worried about. Melgar also lives with obesity and high blood pressure—underlying conditions that put him squarely in the high-risk category for serious complications should he fall ill with COVID-19.

But still, nothing could have prepared him for the moment when his and his family’s test results came back.

“When I found out that I had contracted coronavirus, I felt desperate,” he recalls. “My wife, my daughter Elena, and I began to cry.” His wife and children had also tested positive.

Health wasn’t the only concern on his mind. Food and housing also loomed large—as the mandatory weeks in quarantine put him and his family out of work, financial ruin felt like only a matter of time, given they had no savings to pay for groceries and rent.

Then came another twist that Melgar wasn’t expecting: medical care and essential resources were available in his community, free of charge. The help came from an organization called Socios En Salud.

Félix Melgar and his family speak with a health worker from Socios En Salud. Photo by Bryan Salinas for Partners In Health.
More Than Clinical Care

Socios En Salud has been working in Peru since 1994, when it responded to a deadly outbreak of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in Carabayllo, an impoverished neighbourhood about 20 miles north of the capital of Lima.

Since then, Socios En Salud has expanded to provide medical care and support across a range of clinical areas, from mental health to child health, in coordination with Peru’s Ministry of Health and community health workers —local residents trained to provide basic health services, such as the delivery of medications, and to help patients navigate Peru’s health system.

“We focus on far more than clinical care,” says Genaro Anco, who coordinates Socios En Salud’s social protection program. “We also seek to accompany the patient and the family during the process of treatment and overcoming disease.”

As the pandemic strained Peru’s health system and put marginalized communities at risk, Socios En Salud sprang into action, conducting COVID-19 tests for more than 41,330 people, with 18,066 testing positive. To counter the financial burdens imposed by the pandemic, Socios En Salud provided 1,605 families with food vouchers and 1,679 with socioeconomic support.

Throughout the pandemic response, Socios En Salud’s community health workers have been pivotal in reaching patients at risk of falling through the cracks, especially those in Carabayllo’s impoverished hillside communities—patients like Melgar and his family.

‘They Were Always Calling Me’

Over the next several weeks, Socios En Salud helped Melgar get back on his epilepsy medications and access essential supplies, such as masks and hand sanitizer. He also received food and housing assistance through Socios En Salud’s social support program, relieving the family of the financial burden imposed by COVID-19.

Additionally, community health workers regularly called and, when safe, visited Melgar to check in with him and make sure he was getting the support he needed.

“When I was sick, they were always calling me,” he says. “Truly, they did care.”

That care made all the difference.

Now, Melgar and his family have recovered from COVID-19. For his epilepsy, Melgar receives treatment and medications from the Hospital de Apoyo in Carabayllo. He is also part of Socios En Salud’s chronic diseases program, giving him access to clinical, nutritional, and psychological support.

Even after his recovery, Melgar says, Socios En Salud continues to call and check in on him and his family—a gesture that means more than they can ever know.

“I feel much better…little by little, I am recovering,” he says. “I will always be grateful for Socios En Salud’s help.

Article originally published on pih.org

See how Socios En Salud is working to fight discrimination and improve care for transgender patients in Peru.

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