It’s a little-known fact that once you’ve landed a 720 off a snowy cliff as a professional big mountain free skier – emergency medicine, two toddlers, and global health naturally follow.
At 5’1”, beneath an ankle-length coat and bucket-hat, Claudia Bouvier walks stylishly into a coffee shop in sub-freezing temperatures in Park City, Utah. So how do ER doctors take their coffee? “I’ll have a latte,” she coolly orders, with regular milk.
I assume any woman who makes snow her landing pad for aerial summersaults is immune to its chill, but as the front door swings open every few minutes, Claudia finds a warmer table near the back, and I exhale a silent sigh of relief to learn this Bomb Mom is still very much human.
It’s 1995, and eight-year-old Claudia is behind her mother and father touring the Dominican Republic from the back of a small moped. They stop in a neighborhood where her French Father asks a local family, in Spanish, if he could exchange a few small bills for a tour of their home. “He would show me their house and say ‘See, they don’t even have floors; they have dirt floors. This is their kitchen, living room, bedroom, and just show me how people were living. I think that drove me into medicine and taking care of people that are underserved. [My parents] didn’t have a lot of money. They owned a deli, but being like, look how lucky you actually are.”
Almost three decades later, Claudia, now a board-certified ER physician, her husband Chuck, and their two boys, Oliver (2) and Sebastian (1), are in the mountains of Peru, their toddler’s fourth country. With backpacks on, the family of four (plus Claudia’s mom) spends 20 days traveling through Cusco in-between Claudia’s work With Sacred Valley Health, an extension of her Global Health Fellowship through the University of Utah. “People will come to me and they’re like, ‘You felt ok bringing your kids to Peru?’ I feel like being an ER doctor, stuff happens, you know? You’re driving down the road and get into a car accident. So, what’s the difference if I go to Peru? Maybe it sounds bad, but you can’t just live in fear, you’re just gonna have to take it on. They’re really good at adapting to new places, [Oliver’s] like, ‘Are we gonna go to a new hotel tonight?’”
Through Sacred Valley Health, Claudia educates and trains the local Promotoras de Salud (Community Healthcare Workers) on wilderness and emergency medicine in the city of Ollantaytambo - gateway to Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. “I’m such a mountain person, and it’s such a beautiful mountainous country. [My father] would spend the winters [in the US] and the summers in South America. There’s pictures of him with skis and ski bags on these old boats going through the Amazon to Southernmost Chile to ski.”
As a former member of the World Pro Ski Tour, Daniel Bouvier, Claudia’s father, passed another of his passions to his only daughter. “I did half-pipe, slopestyle, and then I did big mountain ski. In slopestyle we were kind of still the first group of girls that had ever really done it. I was one of the first girls to land a 900 on a big slopestyle jump and in half-pipe. I did try to do 720’s off cliffs. I just was really about the progression of women’s skiing.”
I sip my tea between “mmhmm’s” and “ooo wow’s,” working hard to quiet an inner critic eager to remind me I’m neither a big mountain free skier nor an international doctor teaching emergency medicine in the mountains of Peru. It’s so easy to feel isolated in comparison, and moms are experts. We’ve got measuring tapes on belt clips and we know just where we’re short. “I’m always really hard on myself,” Claudia tells me, “I’m my biggest critic. I always feel guilty when I’m not engaged with my children. I Still feel guilty when I leave. I think every mom has guilt. You feel guilty for being home, for not working, and now that I’m back at work I feel guilty for working.”
In February of 2020, just weeks after Oliver was born, Claudia’s father passed away. “My dad had been always so grounding for me. If I had a serious life question, he would really help guide me. Not having him was so crazy for me and I… I got a little lost.” There’s a moment when I see Claudia’s eyes water, so naturally, I break into tears.
“My dad had been always so grounding for me. If I had a serious life question, he would really help guide me. Not having him was so crazy for me and I… I got a little lost.”
Podiums, 900’s, big mountains, and emergency rooms aside, motherhood can be a dark and choppy sea, for even the most successful sailors among us. Balancing careers, ambitions, and young children is a sensory experience, blindly feeling for cues and direction from the few we trust to guide us. For Claudia, returning from maternity leave meant mourning the loss of her father, while entering motherhood and a healthcare system both surviving the pandemic. “I was wearing this full spacesuit and having to intubate COVID patients with my little, tiny baby at home. I was pregnant again in July and I immediately went to part-time. If you’d asked me before I had kids, I would have never said I’d be a stay-at-home mom or take extra time, but I needed to be with my kids and just refocus. I realized if I was gonna continue in medicine, I had to do something that was fulfilling and had a purpose if I was leaving my children. My mom found this old picture of me when I was 11 and I was dressed up as a doctor on a sailboat, sailing around the world taking care of people, and she was like, this is what you have to do. This is what you’ve always wanted to do.”
If you’d asked me before I had kids, I would have never said I’d be a stay-at-home mom or take extra time, but I needed to be with my kids and just refocus. I realized if I was gonna continue in medicine, I had to do something that was fulfilling and had a purpose if I was leaving my children.
Despite the current political unrest, Claudia will return to Ollantaytambo in August along with 60 medical kits she is stocking through fundraising via Sacred Valley Health. The kits will serve Promotoras across more than 20 villages, many of whom walk or hitchhike for hours to arrive at the training site. “The closest village they work with is 30-45 minutes away, and the longest is six hours. They’re all dirt roads and very few people within the villages have cars. If something happens in these towns, it can take a long time to get to the health center, and they’re not always guaranteed to be open or staffed. So, we train these community people to either stabilize, help get people down to healthcare facilities, or prevent them from traveling to healthcare facilitates for more minor things.”
By now it's nearing 11a.m. and our cups are empty. I have a sick kid at home and Claudia’s just a few hours away from school pick-up. The temperatures outside are still in single digits and we both grab our coats from the backs of our chairs. “I was gonna cross country ski today but it’s way too cold for me. I’m a fair-weather cross-country-er,” Claudia tells me. I laugh, and wipe whatever mascara has dried beneath my eyes.
It's a little-known fact that once you’ve shared tears, a latté, and negative temperatures with a fellow mom, a friendship naturally follows.
Sacred Valley Health is a community-based, public health non-profit that partners with vibrant, indigenous communities in the Andes of Peru. Our core purpose is to improve the health and well-being of these underserved, marginalized communities through a community health worker program that empowers local women with education, resources, professional development, and economic opportunities. We use a Community Partner Approach, working with remote villages to increase access to health knowledge and health care.
Our Community Health Worker Program bridges gaps in resources by training, supporting, and employing local women from these communities. While other organizations provide healthcare to individuals, often through foreign volunteers, at Sacred Valley Health (SVH) we practice equal partnerships with communities where they are central in developing programming to address health disparities in ways that best fit the community. This has enabled us to create a program that is sustainable and culturally competent. Our custom curriculum, designed specifically for indigenous health workers, focuses on preventative health measures for individual behavior change and specific health issues relevant to this region of Peru. Our curriculum development process requires collaboration and approval from local, Quechua-speaking staff at every step. This process also ensures local staff are trained and well versed in program development skills. Our goal is that by providing high quality, culturally relevant health education and resources based in local learning methodology, community health knowledge and educational programming will continue when our presence is no longer needed.