Verna Alva: Dialogue With an Adventist Psychiatrist in Peru

Verna Alva, M.D., teaches psychiatry and public health in the School of Medicine, Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. She is also the director of the Department of Child Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health.

After completing her studies in medicine at San Marcos University, one of the oldest universities in the Americas, she won the prestigious British Council scholarship and went to the University of London to specialize in psychiatry. In 1980 she completed a Master of Public Health at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Dr. Alva was a member of the commission that planned and obtained government approval in 1984 for the creation of Inca Union University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning in Peru. She also served as its first dean of the School of Health Sciences.

Dr. Alva has remained active in professional circles, occupying positions of responsibility such as president of the Association of Women Physicians of Peru (1984-1985), vice president for Latin America of the World Association of Women in Medicine (1988-1992), and president of the Peruvian Association of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Neurosurgery (1987).

Dr. Alva has also served as a member of several governing bodies in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Currently she is on the Executive Committee of the General Conference, serving as a lay representative of the South American Division.

Tell us, Dr. Alva, about your family background.

I was born in a first-generation Adventist home. My father, Agustin Alva, was among the first Adventists in his hometown, in northern Peru. After literally a long night of study, meditation, and prayer he accepted the Bible truths as taught by Seventh-day Adventists. He was then 29. Yet he decided to study at the first secondary school that the church was planning to establish in Lima. Through great effort and sacrifice, my father was among the first graduates of our school, the forerunner of Inca Union University. He returned home and married Maria Leon, a teacher. Together they began establishing schools throughout the province.

You seem to have inherited from your parents your interest and involvement in education.

I have. My earliest childhood memories relate to education. My parents were teachers. Our home was like a school hostel—with five younger siblings and several young relatives staying with us while attending Adventist schools. Also, Christian education gave to us an extended family that includes today several ministers, teachers, physicians, secretaries, and other professionals. Eventually my father became a departmental director, a minister, and the first national president of the Peru Mission. My childhood and adolescence was blessed with a happy, loving family committed to Christ and to the finishing of the gospel commission.

Do you wish to share a particular memory of those formative years?

Although we attended Adventist schools, my sister and I had to enroll in a public school for a short period to have our studies officially validated. An experience at that time taught us the value of commitment and God's gracious providence. My sister's final examinations were scheduled on Sabbath. My parents tried to arrange for an alternative date, but the school refused while the teacher—who liked my sister—told her to simply "drop by for a short while" to take the exam. My sister did not go, and my parents were accused of fanaticism. On Sunday, unexpectedly, the teacher had to give a special exam to another student who had been ill and invited my sister to sit in for hers. She did, but the school director decided not to accept the results obtained by "the Protestant fanatic." Finally, the regional inspector ordered that the passing marks be accepted. It was a memorable experience that prepared me for future challenges and decisions.

Why did you choose medicine as a profession?

Since elementary school days, my dream was to become a physician. Later, during my secondary studies, I was fascinated by the complexity of the human body and challenged by the many illnesses that affect it. I saw in medicine an opportunity to learn more and to serve. Now, with years of experience behind me, I'm amazed not only at the extraordinary expansion of knowledge in medicine, but also at how much there is still to learn.

What kind a/challenges did you face at the university?

First, I had to make the transition from the protected Adventist subculture— that gave me a solid character foundation—to life "in the world." Second, I had to accept the fact that at that time, many in the church were not in favor of young people, especially women, attending non-Adventist universities. Third, I had to face the usual Sabbath classes and examinations. But the beautiful thing is, the Lord always helped me to find a way out of whatever the problem. Thus I was able to arrange for exams in advance, or to do additional projects. At all times my fellow university students, although not sharing my faith, showed their solidarity and support for my convictions. When you stand for principles, you always stand tall!

After you completed your medical studies, what did you do?

I joined the Adventist Hospital at Chullumani, in Bolivia. The short experience there helped me see the important role that health and healing can play in the mission of the church. Later, I went to London to do my specialty in psychiatry.

What led you to specialize in psychiatry?

Mainly three factors: interest in neurology and psychiatry while in medical school, direct experience with sick people, and a growing realization of the role of mental and emotional factors on health and sickness. Later on I chose to focus on child and community psychiatry.

Why did you concentrate your interest in the treatment of children and youth?

Because they are an age group that needs immediate attention—while they are in the process of development—and because the positive results of intervention will be felt for a long time. In addition, they have great potential and constitute an important asset for the future of a nation and the world. Caring for the needs of children and youth requires the active involvement of parents and teachers.

Do Christian psychiatrists have an advantage over their non-Christian colleagues?

Perhaps not so much an advantage, but certainly a privilege: the privilege of knowing that we deal with a delicate facet of God's creation, of having as a model the greatest Healer and Teacher in the universe, of being able to utilize a wider range of treatment methods, including the therapy of faith and hope.

What aspects of your work give you the most satisfaction?

Being able to guide, through teaching, the formation of future physicians. The opportunity of working clinically with children and their parents, and of seeing positive results.

What does it mean to you to be a Seventh-day Adventist?

To be a Christian and an Adventist involves a major commitment. It means to acknowledge that, without the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we can't truly follow the example of the Master. It means to carry on the triple ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching at a special time in the history of the world—"the time of the end." It also means to do our part in the revival and reformation of our church so that it may provide a powerful example of love and service to all.

Do you have opportunities to share your faith in connection with your work?

To share my faith is to make clear to anyone who would listen that there is a God who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is to become an instrument of His grace in leading others to know and accept Him as Saviour. Once these two steps are taken, it is easy to present other biblical doctrines.

Many people are aware that I'm an Adventist even before meeting me. My prayer is that when they do meet me, they will find that, beyond religious labels, I'm a true follower of Christ. It is then that I can share my spiritual convictions with them. With colleagues at work, during group or individual discussions, in the clinical contacts with patients, and in visiting non-Adventist relatives, I find opportunities to share my faith, joy, and freedom in being a Christian.

Keeping a balance between one's professional and spiritual life is not always easy. How do you manage this?

It is a constant challenge. My experience is similar to the one expressed by the apostle Paul: "What I want to do I do not do." Whenever I sense that I'm losing my balance in life, I resort to the well-tested formula—devotional study of the Bible, prayer, and Christian service. I thank God for His abundant grace, for the assurance of total victory through Christ, and for the gift of eternal life.

Some years ago you were a candidate for a seat in the Senate of Peru. Do you think it is appropriate for Adventists to occupy positions in government?

In 1985 I was a senatorial candidate, but did not win the seat. I don't think that being a Christian and serving the country in a political office are incompatible. The prayer of Jesus for His followers was not that God would take them "out of the world" but to protect them "from the evil one." There are many ways in which we, as Adventists, can contribute to the improvement of life in our countries both as ethical professionals and as representatives and servants of the people in a democratic process. The challenge is always to promote justice, peace, and fraternity on this earth without losing sight of "the blessed hope" of Christ's return to establish His eternal kingdom. As Jesus said, we must work "as long as it is day."

As a very busy single person, do you have time to cultivate friendships and have a social life?

I'm committed to my teaching, my clinical work with children, and to my church responsibilities. These three circles give me opportunities to cultivate social relations. I also enjoy the friendship of several people with whom I went to the university. In addition, I can always rely on an extended family network that provides me with encouragement and support.

Finally, do you have any counsel for young Adventists who are considering psychiatry as a profession?

As Bible-believing Christians, aware of the powerful interaction between mind and body, we have much to contribute to health and healing. Psychiatry offers great opportunities and satisfactions to anyone who approaches it with a clear understanding of human nature, a commitment to ethical principles, and a perennial striving for self-development.

Interview by Willy Benzaquen. Willy Benzaquen is Youth Ministries director of the Inca Union Mission, in Lima, Peru.