Proceeds from Rivendell Sod Farm in Spring Valley fund hospital in Mexico’s Sierra Madre
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Dr. Mike Berkeley didn’t want his epitaph to be “He fixed many knees.”
So he changed his life. He went from being a very successful orthopedic surgeon in Aspen for many years to being the owner of the largest sod farm in the area to his current job: running a hospital in the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, where he takes care of thousands of Tarahumara Indians.
“Today, I guess my epitaph would say, ‘He fixed many broken Indians,'” said Berkeley, 57, with a smile. “I have healed the richest and the poorest.”
That is possible partially thanks to Rivendell, the sod farm he and his wife, Maci, started more than 15 years ago. All proceeds of the farm, located just above the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus, go to fund the Hospital Mision Tarahumara, which the Berkeleys built 10 years ago.
“Many of these Indians would be dead from infections or crippled,” said Mike in a recent visit to Glenwood Springs – he comes once a month only for a few days while Maci spends a little bit more time here overseeing the farm.
Hospital Mision Tarahumara, operated by Mexico Medical Missions, a nonprofit organization, is the only hospital that can provide medical services to the more than 100,000 Indians (about 90,000 Tarahumara) who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains. There is another small Mexican hospital nearby but according to Berkeley it usually runs out of supplies and doesn’t have the staff needed.
These mountains are vast and beautiful, but at the same time plagued with droughts and few economic opportunities for its inhabitants. The area now has also become one of the largest drug growing regions in North America. Marijuana, cocaine and opium are grown in the area, taking advantage of the largest canyon system in the Western Hemisphere. Health problems are rampant as well, Maci said.
“This area has one of the largest maternal and infant mortality rates in Mexico and the fifth highest in the world,” she said. “Some women still go to the forests to have their babies. They go alone, they hold on to the branch of a tree and after giving birth they cut the umbilical cord with a rock.”
The hospital today has 42 workers, including two doctors, two dentists and a team of eye doctors that comes from the United States once a year.
“We have treated about 18,000 Indians according to our charts,” said Mike, who has become a Mexican citizen and a board-certified orthopedic surgeon in Mexico.
Victoria Rodgers, who now works for the Berkeleys at Rivendell, spent six months in 2007 working at the clinic in Mexico. There she helped the hospital’s midwife, Shelley, with several births. Both women also visited the villages to teach other women how to be midwives.
“My experience was incredible,” she said. “The very first weekend I was there, I got to go out to a remote village and see the way the Tarahumara people are living. I have gotten to sit in adobe homes with Tarahumara families and eat and observe. I have seen the wonderful, beautiful parts of their lives, but have also witnessed some of the horrible things that wreak havoc among their people.”
In their years working at the hospital, the Berkeleys said they have encountered many obstacles. Some are obvious such as not having a telephone line or having to drive five hours to get supplies and food. Others, however, have to do with the Indian culture and the personality of the Tarahumaras.
According to the Berkeleys, the Tarahumara maintain their culture sometimes to the expense of their own health.
“At first, they think you’re going to eat their children,” Maci said. “It takes a long time to build confidence, sometimes years.”
To get closer to the Indians, the key is to travel to the villages – several are far away – to tell people about the hospital. Though the hospital now has its own plane to pick up patients in remote areas, many times, when they get hurt, the Indians still look for local help.
“One has to accept that they will go to the village witch doctor first before coming to see us,” Mike said. “Sometimes they wait several weeks to come see us for help.
“Sometimes they drive me crazy, but I love them,” he added. “They’ re survivors and incredible athletes.”
The cost to run the clinic is $800,000 a year – one-third of that comes from Rivendell, the rest comes from private donations.
“The work the Berkeleys and all who have joined them do is not easy,” Rodgers said. “The needs are overwhelming, but there is hope, and I have seen Mexico Medical Missions bringing that hope to the Tarahumara people. There are no frills at the hospital, nothing fancy there or in the community health program. What you see is a dedicated group of people getting their hands dirty day in and out to serve the people in many ways.”
For the Berkeleys, who have two grown sons, their work is part of their Christian faith, though they don’t refer to it as a sacrifice.
“There isn’t a moment when I’m bored,” Maci said. “We know we have to be there.”
She also described the hospital as “a miracle.”
“I can’t explain some things that happened while we were building the hospital,” she said still in awe. “We had a Mennonite group that came in 1999 for six months to help us build it. I don’t know where they came from. They were professional builders from North Carolina. Then other people showed up: We had an electrician from Arizona who came down several times during two years to wire the entire hospital to standards.”
For Mike, who retired once and now has no plans to retire again, the hospital gave him a chance of maturing.
“It is through difficulties that people mature,” he said. “Things are much easier in the States.”
Mike, who is also an avid skier, plans to continue with the hospital and the community programs in the Sierra Madre Mountains.
“If I could sell all this,” he said referring to Rivendell, “and just live in Mexico I’d do it. It’s hard to live in two worlds.”
For more information on Mexico Medical Missions go to http://www.mexicomedical.org. If you’d like to help, send your donation to Mexico Medical Missions, 4001 114 Road, Glenwood Springs, CO, 81601.
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