Partner organizations Solidarity Bridge and Puente de Solidaridad bring medical help to the neediest Bolivians
For Ariane Castro of Cochabamba, Bolivia, being the mother of two babies is the greatest gift, but the journey of this family did not start off smoothly.
When her daughter Valeria was born five years ago, the baby was diagnosed with patent ductus arteriosus, a congenital heart disease requiring surgery. Desperate to save her daughter’s life, Castro requested a loan of more than $6,000 to pay for the surgery. A few months later, she was told Valeria needed a second heart surgery. “With a debt to pay, I felt distressed and hopeless,” Castro says. “I could not afford to pay for another surgery.”
But Castro regained hope when she learned about Puente de Solidaridad, a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba that helped cover the cost of Valeria’s second surgery.
Puente de Solidaridad is the sister organization of Solidarity Bridge, Inc., a nonprofit in Chicago. Both are lay mission organizations connected to the Archdiocese of Chicago and committed to providing medical supplies and services for the poorest Bolivians, especially those needing highly complex surgeries.
Solidarity Bridge was founded by Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa, who was born in Bolivia. Raised in the United States, he could not forget an incident he witnessed as a child in Bolivia. “My father was a manager of an oil company and a big explosion happened there,” he says. “My father visited the families and took me with him. I saw the poverty of this public hospital, decrepit, almost nothing, no medical supplies, just the experience of these poor people.” Hinojosa, a theologian and not-for-profit developer, felt God was calling him to put Catholic social teaching into practice by responding to the medical needs in his country. He founded Solidarity Bridge in 1999.
Several times a year Solidarity Bridge sends teams of surgeons and nurses from the United States on medical missions to Bolivia to perform surgeries, and to equip and train local doctors to better serve their community. In 2005 Hinojosa started Puente de Solidaridad. It is legally and financially independent from Solidarity Bridge, but they work together as partners to help Bolivians like Castro.
Last year Castro gave birth to her second baby, Mariana, who at 6 months old was discovered to have the same heart disease as her sister and needed urgent heart surgery. Castro turned again to Puente de Solidaridad for help.
“When I cross the doors of Puente de Solidaridad, I feel peaceful, something calms me down,” says Castro. “I realized I was not alone fighting for the life of my second daughter.” Mariana had successful surgery at a hospital in Cochabamba.
For Patricia Vargas, executive director of Puente de Solidaridad, an important component of Puente de Solidaridad and Solidarity Bridge is to help advance medicine in Bolivia, exchange experiences and train in new techniques. “The exchange is very rich,” she says.
Puente de Solidaridad offers general surgery, gynecological surgery, heart surgery and neurosurgery in local hospitals and organizes “campaigns” to rural areas, where Bolivian physicians provide surgeries for patients unable to travel to larger hospitals.
Vargas emphasizes the medical challenges in Bolivia, where 77 percent of the population does not have health insurance, so they have to rely on the public system in a country that allots only 7 percent of its budget to health care. “The public hospitals have very little equipment so they cannot respond to health problems, especially at the surgical level,” she says.
Puente de Solidaridad and Solidarity Bridge have provided surgery to more than 6,500 patients in Bolivia, with the support of more than 700 medical volunteers from the United States and Bolivia.
In addition to individual donations, Puente de Solidaridad receives financial and spiritual support from Catholic organizations such as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
Ariane Castro holds her daughter Mariana, who had successful heart surgery at a hospital in Cochabamba, as did her sister Valeria, thanks to Puente de Solidaridad. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)
Maryknoll Father Dae Kim served as a chaplain of Puente de Solidaridad before beginning his new mission in Brazil in 2019, “I was a spiritual guide of the family,” says the missioner. “A lot of the times the patients are babies. So I could not do a lot with them, but the parents who were going through the trauma feel helpless with their children. I tried to support them spiritually, strengthen them, give them hope, pray with them and be part of that intimate experience.”
For Father Kim, this mission is not about charity. “It is about walking together and being with one another, being engaged in relationships,” he says. “I had the chance to meet some of the adolescents who were operated on when they were children. Now with their new hearts, they’ve grown up and it’s that walking together because we share something special.”
Participating in the medical mission visits was especially meaningful to Father Kim. “It was certainly a special ministry because I got to accompany the medical team, employees, patients and the families during these difficult times,” says the missioner. “As a patient, you never want to enter surgery because you are afraid. My presence was to comfort them, encourage them and keep them calm. I had so many joyous conversations.”
Marizol Mamani, the social worker at Puente de Solidaridad, considers the spiritual aspect of this job very important. “We give them hope and the opportunity to find more humane and sensitive help to their situation,” she says.
After a challenging beginning, Valeria and Mariana are healthy and can have normal lives now. “I feel very happy because finding Puente de Solidaridad has been a blessing from God,” says their mother. “I am eternally grateful that they helped me with my daughters.”
Margaret Gaughan contributed to this article.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Dae Kim welcomes Ariane Castro and her daughter Mariana at the office of Puente de Solidaridad. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)