Few sounds disturb the stillness of the African night. Insects buzz in the bush, but the 60 or so people gathered remain silent. Among them is Craig Louis Perrinjaquet — known throughout the High Country as Doc PJ — a Breckenridge doctor and international humanitarian on the way home after spending several weeks in a refugee camp in the Nuba Mountains of South Sudan, a country in the throes of its birth and a bloody civil war.
At about 4 a.m. the roar of engines splits the air as a cargo plane appears, diving toward the small, unmarked landing strip. The calm, lazy scene explodes, the waiting people boiling into action like ants, sprinting up to the plane before it even stops, luggage and children hoisted onto their shoulders.
A car full of soldiers careens in amid the chaos. They single PJ out of the crowd, pulling him aside with his luggage, firing rapid questions. His guide and translator tries in vain to intervene.
“It was a really confusing time, because there were people switching sides back and forth,” PJ said.
Finally, the soldier in charge tells PJ he can get on the plane. When PJ asks about his luggage, the man says they’ll send it on later.
“Oh, OK, I get it, I’m understanding this now,” PJ said of his thought process at the time. “I just put my hands in the air and pointed down at my little bag where I keep my passport and said, ‘Is it OK if I keep my passport?’ They said yeah.”
He gets on just before take off, with his passport, the clothes on his back — and his life.
That was the fall of 2011. PJ has since returned to South Sudan multiple times, bringing medical supplies to the refugee camp, seeing patients and assisting in training and re-training local staff.
Trips like these are normal for PJ — he’s been taking them since the ’90s, to places all over the globe, including Nepal, India, the South Pacific, Honduras, Gambia and Cameroon. Though he affiliates with nonprofit organizations from time to time, the majority of his travel is done on his own time and with his own financing. He learns about opportunities through friends, acquaintances and even strangers, seeking out the areas with the highest need.
South Sudan is arguably one of the most dangerous regions PJ has visited. Formerly part of Sudan, the southern region seceded January of 2011 and gained independence July 9 of that same year. The Nuba Mountains, where PJ works in a refugee camp, remains an area of contention.
“There’s excitement, anticipation, some fear, a little anxiety — just the right blend mostly,” he said of his emotions when preparing to return to South Sudan. His goal going in isn’t to be reckless, but to fulfill his desire to reach the unreachable.
“The need is so compelling it justifies some level of risk, and I try to monitor it as closely as I can.”
He often asks himself — “Where do I find the place that’s the right scale of what I can do?”
“He is many things,” said Robyn Merrill, clinic manager at High Country Healthcare. “It’s very hard to whittle PJ down into a short conversation.”
Understanding the driving force behind his choices may be as simple as going back to his past, to where it all began.
From the map and by the numbers, Edgewood, Iowa, is unremarkable — just another pinpoint of small-town America, with barely more than 900 residents who are proud of their summer rodeo.
PJ grew up working on the family farm there. His parents and brother still call Edgewood home and every year PJ’s roots pull him back from the heights of Nepal and the remote mountains of Africa to visit.
“Growing up in a small town, … we just helped each other,” he said.
The lesson stuck, and PJ left for medical school at the University of Iowa, a path that would eventually take him to Harvard, Colorado and far beyond.
High Country arrival
PJ first showed up in Breckenridge in 1981 as a medical student, working for Aris Sophocles at the Breckenridge Medical Center. During that time he also volunteered for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. Four years later, he returned (with a medical degree from the University of Iowa and a master’s in public health from Harvard), this time as a full-fledged doctor.
PJ said he was drawn to Summit County because, like Edgewood, it was a small community, with lots of volunteer opportunities, and had “a lot of interesting things to do, and interesting characters.”
Back then, there were fewer people around the county, PJ said, especially in the summer, when it wasn’t rare for him to see perhaps one patient a day. So he spent his time reading, or walk to the Amazing Grace coffee shop to chat with locals. Now when he hangs out at the coffee shop, 30 years later, any conversation with him is peppered with pauses as nearly every other person coming in the door greets him warmly.
“We talk almost daily, and spend a fair amount of time together, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be curt, petty, rude, to anybody; I mean I do enough of that for both of us,” said Jeff Bergeron, a local columnist and long-time friend of PJ’s. “He’s very accessible and you know, we’ll be sitting somewhere having coffee and someone will impose on our conversation and ask him some medical question, either a patient or a friend, will ask a medical question and he graciously gives them his time — to the point where I might be a little perturbed — but he isn’t.”
Merrill remembers the first time she met PJ when starting her job at High Country Healthcare.
“It’s very intimidating when you start working for new doctors; you don’t know what to expect. One of the first things that he made clear was he was very into meetings and making sure we meet as staff once a month and making sure everyone’s connected and we’re on the same page, and in the same breath was ‘What kind of Danishes are you going to get for us this morning?’” she said with a laugh.
When he’s not working, skiing or running around Summit County, PJ can be found in the ranks of the local band the Pine Beatles, thumping away on his stand-up bass. Those who have known him long enough can also expect a serenade on an old beat-up trombone on their birthday, either in person or through voicemail.
Among the rich and famous
Between his Breckenridge internship and moving to Summit County, PJ became an expert in transcendental meditation, a path that led him to meet physician, author and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra.
After relocating to Breckenridge, PJ took a two-year hiatus to move to California, working with wealthy seekers and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson at an ayurvedic center in Los Angeles.
In 1988 PJ returned to Summit County. Two yeas later, he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Chopra with an unexpected question — how would PJ like to go on tour with Michael Jackson?
Jackson’s “Dangerous World Tour” was traveling through Europe that summer and PJ signed on as the singer’s tour doctor and meditation assistant, flying back and forth for several weeklong stints.
“He was a nice guy, a quiet guy,” PJ recalled.
While he helped Jackson off the stage, he got a taste of what it was like in the spotlight as well.
“I was onstage for all of his concerts. I was standing there in the shadows, behind the curtains. It was intense,” PJ said, of the crowds of thousands in attendance. “Their consciousness would hit you like wind, like a physical force, like someone turning on a bright light. … I can see where people can get addicted to that.”
Yet the bright lights weren’t for him, he decided, and he turned back toward his medical practice, and thoughts of going abroad.
“It was interesting but, once for the experience was enough,” he said. “We all have choices, and I could have been a doctor to the stars, but I’d rather be a doctor to the starving.”
Back in Summit County, PJ decided to ramble. His very first international trip was to the tiny island nation of Vanuta, in the South Pacific, between Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
In what would become a commonplace occurrence, PJ learned of the opportunity off-hand, through a patient, who knew of a Canadian doctor working on the remote island.
“That sounds like an exotic place,” PJ recalled telling himself. A few weeks later, he was on a plane headed to the South Pacific.
That was just the beginning, and ever since then, he’s taken several trips a year during the spring and fall seasons to the most remote areas of the globe.
He has an endless trove of stories: the man in Nepal (descendent of the ancestral king of a valley north of Kathmandu) who PJ put through medical school and helped build a clinic, the pygmy tribes in Cameroon he visited, where he pulled teeth and handed out antibiotics and vaccinations, or the villages deep in the jungles of Honduras, where men and women materialize out of the shadows for treatment (anything from broken bones to babies needing delivery) and then disappear again.
“It’s such a rewarding experience, and the ability to travel and really see and be invited into the culture and guaranteed intimacy — the immediacy of being with people. The volunteer work is just kind of the ticket, is how I think about it. If you’re going to expect that kind of welcoming, you’ve got to be contributing back,” he said. “In this country, we’re so focused on monetary exchanges, so there they don’t have money. If you’re interesting enough and providing a service to them, then you get welcomed in and get to participate in their culture.”
PJ, who is 59, plans to keep going as long as possible.
“You don’t see a lot of the 70-year-old guys out in the bush, but I want to be that guy,” he said with a grin.
He’s also ready to find the next new place to visit.
“I guess I’ve always looked for worse places where no one’s going, because if there’s somebody else going there, I don’t need to go,” he said, chuckling. And he figures he’ll keep doing it, “until there’s less need in the rest of the world.”