LEBANON — While most other 22-year-old college graduates scramble to find jobs to pay off school loans, Michael Barish spends much of his time securing funds to operate a non-profit pharmacy in the historic Incan city of Cusco in the Andes Mountains of southeast Peru.
Two years ago, the 2007 Lebanon High School graduate co-founded Prescriptions for Peace and the Helping Hands Pharmacy in the city of 358,000 through a grant from the K.W. Davis Foundation at Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine.
Barish graduated from there last spring with a degree in biology.
“A woman left $1 million to the college to be used for world peace projects,” Barish said.
Barish and fellow college junior Mark Oppenheim developed a plan.
“Mark has connections with Mario Diaz Ugarte, who works with Helping Hands which operates a school for poor children. He agreed to be our partner,” Barish said. “Although Peru has a universal healthcare system, little of the money gets to the people due to corruption. Drug companies bribe doctors so they won’t write prescriptions for cheaper generic drugs.”
Pharmaceutical mark-ups can be as much as 400 to 500 percent.
The two men received a $10,000 grant and have since raised another $6,000. With that money they have refurbished a small building into a clean, efficient pharmacy that’s open two days per week.
Learning to live and work on “Peruvian time,” was not easy, Barish said.
“Licensing takes weeks and paperwork is constantly lost,” Barish said. “Everyone takes lunch from 1 to 3 p.m. and there’s no way you’re going to get anything done on a weekend. People are always one to three hours late and they think nothing of it. Things just move move more slowly there.”
But the extra effort has paid off.
“We have served about 1,000 people through the pharmacy and we also have reached about 800 more people on eight day-long medical campaigns we have made into rural areas,” Barish said.
Many rural people have never seen a doctor, Barish said.
Cusco is en route to the popular tourist area of Machu Picchu, but the poverty rate is high. Since being named a World Heritage Site in 1983, Cusco’s population has tripled. Infrastructure and healthcare services have not been able to keep up, Barish said.
“Many people live in villages with no electricity or running water,” Barish said. “They come into the city to work and then go back to their villages at night. Clean drinking water is scarce and they often carry water back to their homes in the mountains.”
Common ailments include intestinal problems caused by giardia bacteria and issues associated with malnutrition. Children and adults also have serious dental issues and live with pain on a daily basis, Barish said.
At the pharmacy, medications are sold at cost, on a sliding-scale ability to pay or given away, Barish said. He said the pharmacy is self-sustaining and operates on a few hundred dollars per month.
“We originally worked out a plan to buy medicine through Samaritan Health Services, but we found it was actually cheaper to buy them in Peru,” Barish said.
A licensed pharmacist operates the clinic and is assisted by volunteers including Barish and Oppenheim.
“We also spend a lot of time reaching out to other healthcare providers in the area,” Barish said.
Before setting up a medical campaign in a village, the volunteers meet with city leaders and after getting their permission, they post flyers throughout the village or make announcements over a community-based public address system inviting people to visit.
“Having some food available is a must,” Barish said.
Both men speak fluent Spanish, but many rural villagers only speak a native Incan dialect, so they rely on volunteer interpreters.
Healthcare runs in the Barish family. His father, William Barish, is a physician with Samaritan Health Services in Lebanon. His mother, Carol Chervenak, is a physician in Albany. His old brother, Peter, 26, is a second year medical student at Cornell University in New York.
Barish is in the United States until late April to raise funds for the pharmacy and to complete his MCATS for admission to medical school. He plans to apply to more than a dozen universities, but hesitates to name his dream school for fear of “jinxing it.”
Let’s just say his top choice is Ivy League and in Boston.
“Although I thought I was prepared to see poverty, the level is astounding,” Barish said. “It was truly a culture shock and every time I come home, I’m reminded of how good we have it.”
Barish said he has learned to survive on the cheap. He lives in a small apartment above the pharmacy and a three-course meal costs about $1. Rent in the inner part of the city is about $250 per month and in his neighborhood, about $100.
“People eat a lot of chicken, fish and rice,” Barish said. “Guinea pig is considered a delicacy.”
When he isn’t working at the pharmacy, Barish volunteers at a community hospital, most recently helping at a pediatric leukemia center.
Barish said although it’s common to hear about personal safety problems in south American countries, he has never felt as though his life was in danger.
“But, I’ve had my pockets slit open with razor blades by children on public transit,” Barish said. “I also was knocked in the jaw by a drunken, off-duty policeman who didn’t like having an American volunteer around.”
Barish has also found time to hike through the ancient ruins, play soccer and ride horses into the beautiful mountains.
“It’s a hiker’s dream,” Barish said. “You practically trip over ancient ruins anywhere you go. It’s a beautiful place and it has been great to become a part of their community. It has enforced my belief that there is a universal goodness in people around the world.”
Barish said he will gladly talk about the project to local church or civic groups during his stay in the mid-valley. Volunteers are also welcomed.
He can be contacted at 541-401-5026.
To learn more about Prescriptions for Peace or other volunteer opportunities, visit: http://omprakash.org/partner_profile/p/167; or visit the project’s Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prescriptions-for-Peace/145181978828847