South American soldiers find new hope at Mayoby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
For nearly two years, doctors at the Mayo Clinic have been treating some of the most severely wounded soldiers from the South American country of Colombia. Many have been injured by land mines. Others have been hurt in battles as part of the country's civil war.
Rochester, Minn. — Oscar Lazaro Cardozo couldn't be more excited.
On a recent morning, he sat on an examination table, inside a small patient room at the Mayo Clinic.
The 36-year-old fidgeted with his hands. He had on denim jeans, Puma sneakers and a wooden rosary underneath his brown, plaid shirt.
Cardozo smiled, the stood up to greet orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joaquin Sanchez-Sotelo. The two were meeting for the first time.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Sanchez-Sotelo said. "Tell me, how can I help you?"
Cardozo is one of thousands of Colombian troops injured in his country's 42-year-old civil war.
The brown-eyed man with a crew cut told the doctor he was shot multiple times while on a military operation in an eastern jungle state of Colombia. Several bullets punctured one of his kidneys and spleen, and parts of his large intestine. They also fractured his tibia and femur.
Since the accident, Cardozo has had 72 surgeries. His eyes welled up when the doctor told him he might be able to walk without a cane some day.
"I'm thrilled, thrilled," Cardozo said. "My idea is to be able to run again, return to my normal activities, be able to play with my kids, lift them up, play soccer with my son. Those are my big dreams now. That's my hope."
Sanchez-Sotelo is one of several Mayo Clinic doctors working with United For Colombia, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that brings some of that country's most-wounded soldiers to the U.S. for surgery and rehabilitation.
Since 2006, the group has sent a dozen soldiers to the Mayo Clinic.
Some of them have been victims of land mines. Others, like Cardozo, have suffered general injuries related to the conflict.
United for Colombia estimates the Mayo Clinic has donated more than $1.8 million worth of surgeries and treatment for these soldiers through its international humanitarian program.
The D.C. non-profit has also paid more than $160,000 for the soldiers' living expenses in Rochester, according to Gabriela Febres-Cordero, founder of United for Colombia.
"Obviously, these cases are extremely challenging," Febres-Cordero said. "The medical treatment is a donation from the doctors at Mayo Clinic. The doctors waive their fees to do the surgeries on these patients. The living expenses and everything that's related to lodging and food…we pay for it through our donors."
Less than an hour after meeting with the doctor, Cardozo returned to the three-bedroom apartment he shares with five other soldiers.
The men gathered in the living room and talked about their morning. The chatter inside the room turned to silence when the men saw a Spanish-language television newscast from Colombia. The news about was about the conflict back home.
Even though they were far away from home, they listened carefully to the news.
The impact of Colombia's civil war goes far beyond those who are injured or killed, according to Carolina Barco, Colombia's Ambassador to the United States.
The Colombian Army in 2006 suffered more 623 casualties due to land mines, with 169 soldiers dying from their wounds, according to the International Committee to Ban Landmines. That was more than any other country that year.
On a recent visit to Minnesota, Barco described the war that pits armed guerilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, against the country's military.
Landmines are just one of the remnants of the bloody war, she said.
"The landmines are being placed by the guerilla," Barco said. "The FARC are using them as a way to fight back. It's a very cowardly way, it's indiscriminate. It's hurting not only soldiers but civilians, children who are out playing in the fields. There are no maps of where these landmines are being placed and so we're the country right now that has the most landmines."
Landmines are one of the reasons some of these soldiers have ended up in Minnesota.
Wilson Calderon is a staff sergeant with the Colombian Army. The 34-year-old has been in Rochester for nearly a year and a half.
He suffered third and fourth degree burns and lost his vision after an explosion. He's had 14 facial reconstructive surgeries at Mayo and has regained mobility in both arms.
In very little time, the soldiers have bonded in solidarity as a result of their traumatic experiences, Calderon said.
"To think of what we were like before, and now, at least in my case, to be in complete darkness, is incredibly difficult," Calderon said. "Sometimes you get over it, but sometimes there are days when you fall and you can't be in good spirits. But every time that happens we have to understand that this is now our future, that this is our destiny and we have to learn to accept it and live with it and find strength to continue living."
- All Things Considered, 09/22/2008, 4:45 p.m.