A medical mission turned “Mission Impossible” when a Baptist couple from Houston tried to leave Peru as it closed its borders to combat COVID-19.
“It was absolute, utter chaos,” Ruth Campos, 74, said of the scenes around Lima and its airport earlier this week.
Campos and her husband, retired physician and Operación San Andrés founder Luis Campos, 74, arrived in his native Peru March 6 to direct the mission work of Baylor University students volunteering with the ministry that is mission of South Main Baptist Church in Houston.
Concerns about the disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it eliminated direct student-to-patient contact during the trip, Luis said. The students and other participants returned to the U.S. on schedule, leaving the couple behind to conduct mostly administrative business.
“We never worried,” Ruth said. “We had our (plane) tickets already and it never entered our heads they were considering closing the borders.”
All of that changed the evening of March 15, when Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra declared a state of emergency that included the closing of all borders at midnight March 16.
“Our flight was scheduled to depart at 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday the 17th,” she said, adding it was to be the last flight out of Peru.
Not wanting to cut it that close – and still unsure if the plane would leave after the deadline – the couple packed and headed to the airport Sunday in hopes of getting onto an earlier flight.
“We considered going to Costa Rica, Colombia, Miami, but there were no alternative flights no matter how much you paid,” Luis said.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of Peru was being shuttered. Travel between provinces was forbidden, taxi service was about to be suspended and all airport shops and restaurants were closed.
“You couldn’t buy a bottle of water, nothing,” he said.
Inside and outside the airport were stranded travelers whose later domestic and international flights had already been scratched.
“It was total chaos and surreal,” he said.
They and other passengers on the Houston-bound flight were told they had to be out of the terminal by 11:59 p.m., whether or not they were on an aircraft.
“And the plane was late from Houston,” Ruth added.
Tensions were high during the boarding process once the plane arrived.
“When we got on the plane they were saying ‘move, move, move, move. Get in your seat,’” she said.
Hopes rose when the airliner pulled away from the terminal and taxied to the runway.
“When the plane took off, everybody applauded,” she said. “That’s when it became real that we were going home.”
They arrived in Houston early Tuesday morning and breezed through Customs thanks to restrictions to international travel.
It was a nice way to end a suspenseful trip. However, both said they never succumbed to fear.
“I felt God was in charge of this adventure,” Luis said.
The adventure was part of Operación San Andrés, which provides medical, dental, clean water, Christian education and other ministries in Peru.
“I was glad to be with Ruth and we had no real fear but obviously we had a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
A huge amount of support from friends, including fellow members of South Main Baptist Church, also helped.
“Our thought,” Ruth added, “was that we know our faith works and this is just another thing.”
And they remain undaunted in their ministry.
“Our children think we are too old for this. But we’re not,” she said.
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