Giving Back to Guatemala: Medical Mission Experiences

We are home! After a whirlwind, week-long adventure in Guatemala, Derrick Larr and I are back sleeping in our own beds, taking warm showers and looking back fondly at our amazing experience. It was work – we dragged our camera and equipment through the jungle in the heat, trying to find the best stories we could. It was rough — sleeping in tents on mats inside a church and school. We had no plumbing, no hot water and very few of the comforts many take for granted in the USA. But we were only there for a week. This is everyday life for the villagers we met. Sixty percent of the people in Guatemala live in extreme poverty. Most don’t have access to clean water, sanitary latrines (outhouse) or stoves that don’t smoke out their lungs and their homes, leaving soot covering the walls. But they are happy.

What struck a chord with many of us on this trip is the emotional and mental wellbeing of the patients we saw. Physically, there were plenty of problems – nearly all the children had worms and parasites, plenty of people had injuries left untreated for months, infections, asthma, arthritis and acid reflux. They don’t feel well physically, but nearly all of them were smiling. The children are downright joyful. They don’t have many toys, none have iPads, computers or the newest sneakers – but they are happy. They are also extremely respectful and polite. The families live together, several generations have their own spaces on a compound. As a group, they farm, clean, cook and live in harmony. Everyone has their jobs. The children work, but they also play, and many attend school. Sadly, the average girl only completes the 3rd grade. Boys typically make it to 7th.

We visited two different villages during our medical mission. Coyolate was our first stop — it was also our home base, where we slept and ate. The people there get more medical care than most. Two other doctors visit this community once a year – plus they have a pharmacy with a high school educated nurse on staff. But there was still a lot to do. People were lined up at the school-turned-clinic when we arrived. The medical crew saw everything from newborns to the elderly. Patients gradually made their way through triage, into an “exam” room and then to the pharmacy for medications, toothbrushes, toothpaste and glasses if they needed them. All were so grateful for the care and attention. I was only sad I couldn’t understand what they had to say. My Spanish isn’t the best, and we all shared 7 translators who worked tirelessly to help us. While they did their best, I know a lot of what was said got lost in translation.

Every night after a delightful dinner – lovingly prepared by Ruth, the wife of the pastor Tomas, and one of our hosts – someone from the community would speak to us about their life. Tomas was one of the first to share his story of living through Guatemala’s brutal, 36-year civil war. More than 200-thousand were killed, and many lost their land. The effects of that tragic and tumultuous time are still very real here. Corruption in government continues to be a big problem. That is one reason it’s so hard for these families to work their way out of poverty. And one reason mission trips, donations and awareness are all crucial to giving these people a leg up.

Eighteen people, including Derrick and I, made the trip from northern Michigan to Guatemala to do what we could to help these people and share their stories. We all came home changed. In the next blog post, learn more about the group, who they are and why they decided to do this.