Private Practice and Public Service

Actress Amy Brenneman travels to Peru with humanitarian organization CARE to focus on maternal-child health


Through the magic of television, we get glimpses of what it means to be a physician. Some shows are a tad more realistic than others while some, like "Private Practice", (which closed its doors after six seasons) play more on the emotional drama that permeates the day–to-day life of your average doctor. I can’t say that any of the bazillion “average” doctors I know have ever faced quite the same personal chaos as say, Amy Brenneman’s character, psychiatrist Dr. Violet Turner.

I spoke with Amy Brenneman about where she’ll focus that passion and drama on now that her show has completed its run. Her answers tell the story of a real-life doctor, quietly creating big-time successes working with one of my favorite humanitarian organizations, CARE (recently ranked second globally among NGOs involved in humanitarian relief work and seventh out of the 100 top non-governmental organizations). Amy said, “The show wrapped in early December and within days, I was on a plane to Peru with my family.” One chapter ended, another began.

Amy has been dedicated to CARE since reading Half The Sky, about lifting women out of poverty. CARE is highlighted in the book and for Amy they offered a perfect opportunity to funnel her commitment to service to affect a global reach. Amy says, “I’ve wanted to travel with CARE for a while and bring whatever attention I could to their work, I finally found the time."

She arrived in Ayacucho, Peru, the same tiny city I visited in 2009 and Christy Turlington Burns visited the year before. That’s where we all met Dr. Ariel Frisancho-Arroyo, an obstetrician and CARE staffer whose work focuses on maternal-child health. When Christy and I visited, Dr. Frisancho showed us how simple measure in the way hospitals and clinics provide maternal health services reduced maternal mortality by more than 50%. When Amy met Dr. Frisancho, they focused on CARE’s Windows of Opportunity program to reduce malnutrition and improve health for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children.

Amy and Dr. Frisancho visited two tiny villages, (each requiring several hours driving on rickety, windy, nausea-inducing mountain roads) where community leaders demonstrated dramatic progress made in hygiene, sanitation and nutrition over short periods of time through CARE-sponsored programs.

Amy says: Clear, well-detailed posters, charted the status of each of the village’s 123 souls. A legend on the bottom showed which households had children, gestating mothers, running water, animals – all the details important to this life. They also showed charts where each infant and child was periodically and rigorously weighed and measured, so that malnutrition could immediately be red-flagged. The nearest clinic was days away by foot. Through CARE’s support, the village had created its own well-baby clinic, and if any babies were not well, they could alert someone who could help. Later, a mama proudly showed us her clean home and new woodstove, which now had a functioning chimney so her kitchen no longer filled with smoke. She showed us separate sleeping chambers for herself and her children. Previously, parents, children, and animals crowded into the same sleeping space that women readily admit were filthy.”

In the next village, Amy shares: A woman described the domino effect of having clean, running water in her home. “We have cleaner houses now, so we don’t get so sick. We have more crops and things to do so we have less children – that used to be the only thing we did!” Her eyes lit up as she saw her joke land, across two languages.”

The day-to-day life of a real-life doctor may not have all the drama as your average, “I play one on TV” doctor, but they do have day-to-day opportunities to save the world, one mother, one village at a time.

To learn more about the poverty-fighting projects CARE operates in 84 countries, visit To start getting directly involved yourself, consider attending the National CARE Conference in Washington DC this March.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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