The news traveled from San Miguel to Riverhead in an instant last week as staff at Peconic Bay Medical Center learned through social media of the slaying of a doctor they recently worked with on a medical mission to El Salvador.
Dr. Jorge Aristides Palucho Cañenguez was an anesthesiologist who worked closely with the PBMC team during a medical mission trip to the country in January.
“Jorge was extremely calm, skilled and caring for the patients, which were ideal for his role as an anesthesiologist,” said Dr. Kaushik Manthani, one of nine local volunteers who worked with Dr. Palucho during the mission trip. “We would watch him do spinal anesthesia time after time with precision and ease. For these reasons, I would have stood him head to head against any anesthesiologist in the U.S.”
PBMC staff learned about the murder through Facebook, after the news was posted by another Salvadorian anesthesiologist who worked with the group.
The news brought even closer to home the very real dangers and threats facing the people of El Salvador, something the mission group was largely shielded from during its time there. The American staff had 24-hour security coordinated by national, local and tourist police and rarely left the compound where they were working.
During interviews in January, Salvadorian staff and patients expressed frustration with, but a certain resignation to, the violence in their country. They described daily occurrences and interactions with gang crimes, ranging from petty thefts to attending funerals for murdered friends.
Despite a declining homicide rate, El Salvador is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with 80.94 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of State.
It is home to one of the most dangerous gangs, MS-13, which has reportedly been responsible for several recent high-profile murders in Suffolk County and crimes across the U.S.
A 2016 New York Times report on crime in El Salvador found that most murders were committed over extortion for amounts as little as a few dollars.
In January, staff from Peconic Bay Medical Center traveled there for a one-week medical mission, operating on 67 patients for hernias, hemorrhoids and lipomas, among other ailments.
They worked out of the Centro Medico David V. King in Jucuapa. Built in 2004, it provides either free or highly subsidized care for between 75 and 100 patients daily. The country has a nationalized medical system and although residents are hesitant to complain, they do admit that El Salvador’s facilities are outdated and overcrowded.
During the trip, the PBMC staff was assisted by the staff of the center as well as by local doctors and nurses who typically work at the national hospital. They were brought in to help manage the patient load.
One of those doctors was Dr. Palucho. Originally from a small municipality near the city of Usulutan, he lived in San Miguel, the country’s third largest city. There, he worked at the San Juan de Dios National Hospital, while also offering his services to other clinics.
He studied medicine at the University of El Salvador with a specialization in anesthesiology, said his colleague and friend Dr. Nelson Amaya.
“He was always a very kind person and dedicated to his work,” Dr. Amaya said, adding that Dr. Palucho was also a teacher.
Little detail about Dr. Palucho’s death is available and it is unclear how the police investigation will proceed.
“The irony of such a good man to have his life taken with such a senseless, evil act,” said Dr. Agostino Cervone of PBMC, who led January’s mission. “I’m sure he’ll be missed by friends, family and the patients he helped.”
“I found him to be warm; he was very proud of his family,” added registered nurse Sherri Kelly, one of the PBMC mission volunteers.
Dr. Manthani also praised Dr. Palucho’s dedicated work ethic, remembering that on the last day of the mission trip, despite a full day of work with the Americans, Dr. Palucho then went to work a second shift at another hospital.
“This was supposedly common for him to do,” Dr. Manthani said.
The author is a freelance writer who joined PBMC staff on their mission in El Salvador. She documented the experience for the News-Review.
Photos: Dr. Jorge Aristides Palucho Cañenguez. (Credit: Courtesy of Laura Kelly)