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Giving back and getting back

Lake Oswego physician Lou Perretta reaps the rewards of providing his emergency room skills to the pooor in a slum area of Uganda
by: Vern Uyetake The people of Kampala were so thankful for having Perretta's help, but he says he's thankful for having the opportunity to help out.

The first time Dr. Lou Perretta of Lake Oswego walked into the slum area in Kampala, he thought, 'I have come to the most desperate place on earth.'

Even for a man used to hardships on past medical mission trips for Project Helping Hands - traveling on roads of bottomless mud, house calls in jungles, crossing rivers - Perretta's first experience in Uganda was stunning for all the wrong reasons: Streets lined with garbage, the pervasive horrible smell and the most utter poverty he had ever witnessed.

The church in which he held his clinic was located right in the middle of this slum.

'I felt almost hopeless,' said Perretta, an emergency physician at Kaiser Sunnyside Hospital. 'It was really stark.'

But after seven days in which he treated 3,500 people, Perretta's feelings changed a great deal.

'It was an experience of a lifetime,' he said.

Perretta found that by giving Ugandan people some hope, in return they gave hope back to him.

'I felt more energized after my week there than I did after a shift in the emergency room,' Perretta said. 'In Uganda there was a lack of worries you have in the U.S., like insurance and malpractice suits. You're free to practice medicine the way you feel is best for the people.

'The Ugandan people were so welcoming, friendly and willing to make us part of their lives.'

Perretta had felt well rewarded since he began volunteering for Project Helping Hands four years ago as his way to 'give back to the world by using my skills to help others.'

On his very first medical mercy trip to Bolivia he saw firsthand how life changing such an experience could be.

'I took along my 14-year-old son Nathaniel, who was a sophomore at Lakeridge,' Perretta said. 'Now he's a sophomore in college, doing pre-med.'

But his previous trips did not steel him for what he found in Uganda.

'On my first impression I was overwhelmed,' Perretta said.

Fortunately, Perretta had a remarkable man to help him and the rest of the Helping Hands team. His host was Ugandan native Robert Nabulere, who directed a school called, appropriately, 'The Miracle School' and was also the minister of the church.

Nabulere's energetic kindness and intelligent guidance was vital, because Perretta needed all the help he could get.

'There were 500 people waiting for us that first morning,' he said. 'I thought, 'Oh, no!' '

Perretta soon got used to big crowds, especially flocks of smiling children and patients who were nonstop in expressing their gratitude. The medical team offered tremendous relief, especially because the lone hospital in the city charges such high fees that most people cannot afford them.

'We treated such a wide variety of problems, from the most critical conditions to the smallest problems,' Perretta said. 'We saw some crazy stuff.'

But even more than dealing out cures, Perretta and his team educated the people on how to achieve better health on their own, especially by using preventive methods.

This was not always successful. For example, Ugandans have a great cultural bias against condoms. The result is that AIDS and other STDs are rampant in the nation.

Still, Perretta's doubts about the effectiveness of a short medical mission in Africa were put at ease.

'You ask what can you do in such a short time,' he said. 'But, yes, we did establish a rapport with the people and, yes, we were able to provide education.

'You also wonder about follow-up, but we established relationships with people there, and they will do the follow-up.'

Now, Perretta has another mission right at home in Lake Oswego. He wants as many people as possible to find out how they can help Project Helping Hands.

'If you are medically inclined, join us,' Perretta said. 'If you're not medically inclined, join us. You can give in so many ways.'

As Perretta found in Uganda, the rewards for giving are rich.

'The people were always thanking me,' he said. 'I wanted to tell them, 'Thank you for having me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come.''

For more information about Project Helping Hands, go to the site www.project-helping-hands.org.