Last month, in the highland village of Chiriquiac, Guatemala, I met a young Mayan woman, dressed in traditional clothing – an embroidered, multicolored huipil (blouse) and a thick cloth skirt held taught by a woven sash wrapped around her waist two or three times. She lives at 9,000 feet altitude and, at 25, is unmarried, a rarity for someone her age. She tells me that she’s worried about the dark brown spots on her face, is sensitive to sunlight, and has difficulty seeing. When I suggest that she apply sunscreen, put on a hat, and/or wear sunglasses, she smiles and gives me one of those look that says, “Who are you kidding? You expect me to wear western accessories? Not in my culture. No way.”
I try to convince her that our recommendations are for her health, and for a longer and better life. But, she just looks at me silently. I’ll never know whether I succeeded in bridging the cultural divide with her, but what I do know is that I contributed in significant ways to improving the health of many others in her community and nearby. Now back from a weeklong medical brigade in Guatemala, I can say that I feel enlightened and rewarded by the experience, in spite of my pre-trip trepidations (see my October 12 blog). Read on to learn about the trip and to get a tiny glimpse of the lives of our Mayan patients.
The medical mission/brigade (choose your poison – as the first implies that our service trip has religious intentions, while the second suggests a military purpose) was organized by Timmy Global Health (Timmy, for short) a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis. Timmy’s mission is to “expand access to healthcare, and empower students and volunteers to engage directly in global development.” It is not religiously (or militarily) aligned – one of the reasons that I chose to volunteer with Timmy, as opposed to other similar organizations. I also liked that Timmy provides ongoing medical support in the regions it works in (currently Guatemala and Ecuador, and soon the Dominican Republic). And, it partners directly with local organizations, strengthening them and relying on them to provide continuing medical services when volunteer brigades (sent out every 2-3 months), such as ours, are not on the ground.
I was part of a team of eleven volunteers (including two doctors and two nurses) who came from the U.S. to join Guatemalan and American health care providers to provide medical services to residents of the western highlands. Our base was Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela), Guatemala’s second largest city, and we worked out of a permanent clinic established by Pop Wuj, a Guatemalan NGO that’s promoting health and community development in the city and surrounding communities. It also offers Spanish classes (even medical Spanish, for those who need it) and engages the students to volunteer in communities to build efficient, smoke-free stoves; work in day-care centers; and help in clinics.
Our leader for the week was an American doctor (with her adorable 8-month old baby), who has been working with Timmy for 1.5 years. She, as well as two Guatemalan doctors, the directors and staff of Pop Wuj, and two young American women working there for the year, oriented and supervised us in a low key, easy-going manner. It helped that four members of our group had participated in other Timmy trips before. (One woman was on her 12thTimmy brigade!). Right from the start, the newbies like me knew we were in competent hands. There’d be no guinea pigs here, as there are (for dinner, no less) in Ecuador and Peru!
Given my initial concerns, why is it that I’m so pleased about how it turned out? Because we were able to provide essential medical care to over 350 individuals who would not have otherwise received it. And because I know that Timmy and its in-country partners will continue to keep track of the patients we saw and help them with future medical needs. On a more personal level, I felt that my skills as a Spanish-English interpreter were needed and appreciated. And, I enjoyed learning about and entering – for a short moment, at least – the lives of people so different from ourselves. (See a future blog for my thoughts on living in and transitioning between two worlds.)
Because of the nature of our visit, we were able to connect with indigenous Mayans in a more human and personal way than most tourists can. As a result, and in spite of language and cultural differences, I experienced a strong sense of mutual respect and appreciation. I gained respect for the difficult conditions in which many of the local people live and for their strong adherence to traditional culture and customs (even while many of the women – dressed in the same clothing as their great grandmothers – were busily talking on cell phones). And, the people we attended were grateful for the medical attention and treatments we gave them, as well as appreciative of the fact that we had taken time out of our own lives to come and work with them.
See Part 2 to learn about the illnesses we encountered and how we lived and played.