Doc PJ brings medicine to the world
BRECKENRIDGE – The doctor is out.Dr. Craig “PJ” Perrinjaquet, a family practitioner at High Country Health Care in Breckenridge, leaves today for a nine-month sabbatical to hone his skills as a jungle doctor.For the last five years, Doc PJ has spent four to six weeks in the rainforest of Honduras twice a year. He originally went with Summit County residents Craig Keller and Byron Swezy as part of a relief effort from Hurricane Mitch.To get to the villagers he treats, he uses a four-wheel drive, then uses mules, then hikes a half-day, then canoes to each village. Even after such a journey, one remote area is only accessible by a hike that takes a couple days “depending on how many snakes you have to fight off,” Doc PJ said.He administers medicine for intestinal parasites to everyone he sees, enticing them to visit him with the promise of free Tylenol and a toothbrush. Other common ailments include pneumonia, boils and dental problems. He also gives out vitamin A, a nutrient not found in their diet of primarily corn, rice and beans, which a Nepal study showed decreased death rates in children 5 years old and younger by 25 percent, he said.A few thousand dollars, which he donates, treats about 2,000 people during a one-month mission, he said.
Still, improper hygiene and tainted water causes ongoing problems with parasites, so Doc PJ’s ultimate goal involves teaching villagers to use latrines, wash their hands and dig wells or pipe spring water into their villages for clean water.”It just takes a long time for people to change a behavior as basic as where you poop,” Doc PJ said. “It’s not like they’re dumb. They have a different knowledge base than I do. I’d be dead in the jungle in three days with what I know. If you don’t take the attitude of the savior but instead realize this is a smart, dedicated group of people that is trying to better its situation – and I might be a catalyst in that – then it’s really fun to participate in it.”Though Doc PJ says a few days of diarrhea and vomiting are par for the course – not to mention the fungus, bug bites and skin infections – the dramatic improvement in health, food and housing he has contributed keeps him coming back.The next nine monthsBut before he makes more changes in the jungle, he’s taking three months to live with a doctor in Mexico and improve his Spanish-speaking skills from a “functional but painful level” to a level in which he can talk to the regional medical community and authorities in Honduras to develop medical, educational and communication systems in the villages.
He’ll spend the following three months at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earning a degree in tropical medicine.Then he’ll spend a month in The Gambia, Africa, doing field work.Afterwards, he’ll return to his patients in Honduras. It will be the first time in five years that he hasn’t visited them every six months, but he left money and instructions with regional medical practitioners to treat them while he’s gone.During his sabbatical, he’ll also search for a new project, because he plans to complete his long-term goal in the villages of Honduras in about five years. Keller, Swezy and Robin Albert, from Youth and Family Services in Summit County, will also be working on the goal in Honduras.While he’s gone
Villagers in Honduras aren’t the only ones who appreciate Doc PJ’s work. He has lived in Summit County since 1985 and helped create High Country Health Care. In addition, he plays the stand-up bass in the Kudzoo Brothers.”He’s an icon in the county,” said Dennis Flint, chief executive officer of High Country Health Care. “He’s the most beloved doctor in Summit County. He’s a perennial winner of the Best of Summit. He has a huge heart, and he’s never too busy to help anyone in need.”Personally, he’s been my mentor. I’ve learned compassion, sensitivity and to think before I act. We couldn’t be further (apart) on the spectrum. He’s a Buddhist vegan, and I’m an ex-Air Force fighter pilot. But (our partnership) has worked really well.”Dr. Dani Rayner will fill in for Doc PJ at High Country Health Care.Rayner worked at the front desk at the Breckenridge Medical Center for a couple of years with Doc PJ, then attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She finished her residency in July. A family practice in Casper, Wyo., offered her a position, but she deferred it so she could tour the nation as a professional mountain bike racer.”She’s well trained, she’s smart, she’s really nice, and she knows the mountain community from having lived here,” Doc PJ said. “And in April – the day I was going to tell High Country I was leaving – she called and asked, ‘I know this is a long shot, but is there any chance I could come work for you from September through June?’ which is exactly when I was planning to leave.”
“She’ll be a great fit for the county,” Flynn said. Flint hopes to find a position for her when Doc PJ returns, but she also is considering continuing her training in sports medicine in July.Words to live by”I appreciate the support the community and my partners have given me,” Doc PJ said. “Hopefully, I’ll inspire anyone to fulfill their own dreams. In the words of Ani DiFranco: ‘You have the rest of your life to do something, but that’s not very long.’ I might only live to be 150 years old, so I’ve got to get going.”Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at email@example.com.
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