Pediatric Associates News

Dr. Pilar Buerk and Daughter Katie Team up on Medical Trip to Bolivia

May 16, 2017

Dr. Pilar Buerk was eleven years old when she accompanied her dad on a trip to a rural village in West Africa where he provided free dentistry.  As a child, she would play with the local children, and sometimes just watch her dad, as he worked on the teeth of people who couldn’t afford dental care, and may never have seen a dentist before him. “I learned from my dad’s example that giving in this way is a powerful experience, and a good thing to do.”

So it’s no surprise that Dr. Buerk has made it a priority to provide medical care to underserved populations. She has been to Haiti six times as a physician serving those in need, and recently returned from a medical trip to Bolivia, where she worked with fellow Pediatric Associates of the Northwest pediatricians Dr. Bluhm, Dr. Dahl, and Dr. Evans-Smith.  Together they treated more than 1,000 patients in a week. “It’s intense, seeing so many more patients in a day than I’m used to, and it’s hard work, emotionally, but it’s incredibly rewarding,” says  Dr. Buerk. “I think I benefit more than the patients. The experience puts me back in touch with why I do this in the first place.”

For Dr. Buerk, one of the most satisfying aspects of this particular medical trip was being able to experience it with her daughter, Katie.  A junior at the University of Oregon, Katie Buerk is double-majoring in Spanish and human physiology, and plans to attend medical school after graduating next year.  Katie worked as her mother’s translator in Bolivia, describing the patients’ symptoms to her mother, and then sharing with the patient Dr. Buerk’s diagnoses or recommendations.  As a translator, Katie would review pre-made handouts with the patients at the end of the exam, explaining in detail what they could do to begin to feel better, which she says people really responded to and appreciated.  Katie even learned to draw blood.   “Katie was so helpful. We were a real two-person team,” says Dr. Buerk.  “She and I worked really well together.” 

When patients would be directed to the pharmacy, and they would tell Katie they couldn’t afford medicine, she would happily tell them that the medicine was free. “Then there would be huge smiles!” said Katie.  “Many of the patients were not treating chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes because they couldn’t afford the medication. I’m really glad we were able to provide that for them,” Says Dr. Buerk.


Katie recalls that on their last day in San Julian, there was a long line of people waiting to be seen. “Word had gotten out!” Katie said.  Remembering the line made the mother-daughter team work extra hard to help ensure that all of the patients could be seen before the end of the day. “It was definitely stressful at times to make sure I was understanding them well enough to pass on information to my mom.” But they did it – averaging sixty patients a day. On a typical day at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, Dr. Buerk sees roughly twenty patients.

Dr. Buerk says, “When I do these trips, I’m reminded that what we have available to us is not available to everyone. And it should be.”  For those patients whose conditions could not be helped with a one-time visit with a doctor, though, Katie and Dr. Buerk still found they could help. “Even if we didn’t have something that we could do for them, just being heard and being cared about seemed to help.”

Katie says that her mother’s ability to be present and show she cares is something she became more aware of during the time she spent in Bolivia. “I grew up with her as a mom. So I know that she’s good at taking care of children.  She’s taken great care of me. But she’s really good at taking care of all people. Just her body language. Her way of caring. She’s just really good at taking care of people.”

Dr. Buerk saw a side of Katie that was new to her. “I’d asked Katie before we left if she had enough snacks for the plane. I didn’t need to be in that role. I could have not been on the trip at all and Katie would still have been great on her own. Seeing her that way -- as an independent adult, one who was flexible and hard-working and very much a part of the team—was pretty incredible. And it felt natural.”

Dr. Buerk adds, “I think maybe she’s gotten “the bug” for this sort of trip.  My fantasy is that after I retire we can go on more of these medical trips. I think it’d be great to work as a team.”

Katie agrees.  “It was an amazing experience. It definitely cemented my interest in practicing medicine. And as a doctor in the future, I’d like to be able to go back and help like that.”

Dr. Buerk adds, “It was incredible to do this with Katie, and it gave a whole new depth of experience. I also believe that involving your kids is just a good example that says to them: giving like this is a good thing to do.  That’s what it did for me,” says Dr. Buerk, recalling her first medical trip to a rural village of West Africa.  “I think my dad would have been happy to have known what he started.”

We think so, too.

Pediatric Associates of the Northwest is proud of Dr. Buerk, Katie, Dr. Bluhm, Dr. Dahl, trip organizer Dr. Evans-Smith, and the entire Bolivia Medical Team.