By Henry Thurston-Griswold
Note: This is the second installment of Henry Thurston-Griswold’s Guatemalan diary. Henry, along with his wife, Joanne, made their first trip to Guatemala in 1990 as part of a Habitat for Humanity trip. Taken with the country’s culture and its desperate need for consistent educational opportunities, Henry vowed to return. This diary covers Henry’s memories of the medical mission.
Image Gallery: Medical Mission to Guatemala
July 7: Pre-trip complications—one of our doctors, Kate Smith, had to cancel her trip due to an illness that is not responding to antibiotics. After many days of sunny weather in Pennsylvania, we drive through about half a dozen thunderstorms, a couple of them with blinding sheets of rain, which turns out to be good practice for Guatemalan driving.
July 8: The bad news: there is a box embargo in place. All our medical supplies and medicines from an NGO, IMA (Inter-church Medical Assistance), which for a nominal fee provides medicine boxes which contain all the essential items for medical mission trips as determined by the World Health Organization, must be rearranged. We purchased three nylon “embargo bags” at $40 a pop to transfer all of the contents of our medicine boxes. We made it to the departure gate with a little time to spare.
We connect in Miami with two other members, Kaitlyn Yerger ’11 and Meagan Schneiderman ’12. Miranda Martz ’13 was waiting for us when we arrived in Guatemala City.
We jumped back in the minibuses and went up to the scenic overlook of this former colonial capital, the Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). It had rained earlier, but it was fairly clear and we had a nice view of both the city and the majestic Agua volcano.
July 9: An excellent day of cultural tourism in Antigua, the formal colonial capital of Central America. Antigua was largely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1773. In the morning, we visited the Valhalla macadamia farm, located about 20 minutes outside of Antigua, where we had a delicious breakfast of macadamia pancakes in an idyllic setting beneath a grove of macadamia trees. The farm was founded by an eccentric and entertaining expatriate from the United States, who moved to Guatemala back in 1976 and has become the apostle for the virtues of the macadamia nut for the local economy and for the environment.
From Valhalla, we drove to the small picturesque town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a small artisans center. The next stop, recommended by our driver Lucas, was to a coffee plantation called La Azotea, which has created a cultural center to provide information about Mayan musical instruments and ceremonies as well as the history and process of coffee cultivation. The two guides were very engaging. The first guide, a Cakquichel woman who had studied anthropology and history, demonstrated the use of a number of the instruments and how their use had evolved from the pre-Columbian era through the colonial period to the present day.
A word about our driver/guide, Lucas. He is an invaluable treasure. He offers great suggestions for activities not included in guide books, he is an extremely safe driver in a culture in which you take your life into your hands by getting in a motor vehicle, and Lucas is a genuinely compassionate human being.
We went to the Capuchinas convent following lunch, the last convent built in Antigua in the early 18th century prior to the earthquake and the best preserved. JoAnn Wallace, dean emerita of the Center for International Education, who had studied in Guatemala City as an undergraduate student in 1963, had her heart set on singing in a large circular basement room in the convent, which has the most amazing acoustics. It took us a while to find the staircase down to the room, but it was worth the roaming around for the experience of regaling other members of our group and some Guatemalan tourists with a rendition of Dona Nobis Pacem, a Latin hymn.
Image Gallery: Juniatians Explore Xela, Guatemala
July 10: We take off for Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city, better known as Xela (pronounced Shay-la), the home of our partner school the Asturias Academy.
After a brief orientation, we walked the four blocks over to our partner school the Asturias Academy. School founder and director Jorge Chojolán gave us a quick tour of the school, ending at the beautiful new library that was completed at the end of last year. Our friends at the school prepared a welcome meal that included the traditional chicken dish called Pepián, corn, potatoes, rice, tortillas, and a kind of banana cinnamon cake for dessert. We were entertained by Krishna Ochoa, a 7th grade student who studies piano at the local conservatory. And rightly so: he started with Fur Elise, played some more contemporary pop pieces, and finished with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The school staff has done some great preparation for the medical delegation, filling out medical histories, sewing curtains, and building examination tables for the four rooms that will be used for medical checkups. Malea Hetrick ’10, who serves as a Brethren Volunteer Service representative at the school, and I sat down and worked out assignments and roles for the people who will be helping with the health clinics. The two keys to success are flexibility and patience as we work to match skills with tasks and adapt spaces for the various pieces of the clinics: intake, medical exams, dental extractions, vision and auditory screenings.
July 11: Jorge and I had to make an early supply run to purchase some essential items that we were missing: lancets to test for blood sugar, two dental syringes for injections of anesthesia, and two gallons of distilled water for the autoclave used to sterilize medical instruments. We visited a full dozen pharmacies and medical supply stores before we finally secured our second gallon of distilled water, an all-too-frequent experience in Guatemala, where many items are in short supply and inventories are low.
For a first day, the health clinics went fairly well. The big challenge is to be sensitive to cultural differences and patient and flexible as we get to know one another and work to provide health services to many people who otherwise would be unable or choose not to access them.
July 12: Second day, better than the first. The morning was easier in part because 15 people who had appointments did not show up. However, the no-shows all came in the afternoon, which made for a busy and long day, stretching to 8 p.m.
An extended Maya-Quiché family arrived from a rural community in Sololá, about three hours from Xela, with several babies with ear problems. One baby’s ear had not grown since birth, the other’s ear canal was totally closed, and a five-year-old brother was so small that no one could believe that he was more than 3 years old. Pediatrician Bruce Lidston, our veteran physician who has participated in all four of our medical delegations, handled these kids, while Juniata alumnus Randy Kochel, who also participated in the previous 2009 delegation, handled two of the kids, who were diagnosed with scabies, an itchy skin disease caused by mites.
July 13: The third day of health clinics was the best so far, although it was also the busiest. We had about 25 kids come from Julie Coyne, Connecticut-based founder and director of a Guatemalan scholarship and after-school tutoring program, Educación y Esperanza (Education and Hope). Catherine Hoyt ’07, one of our volunteers, took over the vision screenings, which helped us to finish eye checkups more or less on time.
Upon our return to the retreat center for dinner, we were greeted by Rebecca (Shoaf) Kozak ’05 and Paul Kozak, who are joining the medical delegation. Becca just finished a six-month internship in El Salvador to complete a master’s degree in social work from Boston College, and Paul, a Huntingdon native, had just spent six weeks doing research on post-conflict reconciliation in Colombia, part of his work for a master’s of divinity degree at Boston College.
Becca is one of my all-time favorite students and human beings. She was part of the spring break service-learning group I brought to Guatemala in 2003 and the first medical delegation in 2004.
Image Gallery: Guatemalan People
July 14: Medical supplies have been holding up fairly well. Jorge had learned that there was another source of distilled water, so we also made a visit to the local brewery, which also owns the primary maker of bottled water, Agua Salvavidas (Lifesaving Water). The water cost less than $2, but the bottle cost about $5. It took the receptionist who waited on us about 15 minutes to write up the receipts, and she even requested Jorge’s birth date, apparently for promotions that he will now receive via his cell phone.
July 15: We split up the remaining meds between the school and Dr. Armas, the Episcopalian priest and medical doctor who helped us. He had brought with him another Guatemalan doctor and medical student to assist.
It rained for most of the two and a half hour drive to Panajachel, located on the shore of the amazingly picturesque Lake Atitlán, formed by the collapse of a volcanic caldera, so the lake was nearly invisible on the descent from the Panamerican Highway. The lake measures about 11 miles by 7.5 miles at its widest point, is at least 1,000 feet deep, and is surrounded by volcanoes and about a dozen indigenous villages.
July 16: All of the rain yesterday led to a crystal clear morning for our boat tour of Lake Atitlan. First stop, San Juan La Laguna, a village specializing in naïf painting. They have an artists’ association of 14 basically self-taught painters, 10 men and four women. One of the painters, I found out, was invited to paint a mural in Philadelphia and another at Rutgers University. He teaches painting classes to children on Sundays, and had for sale some works by his students.
Our second stop, the largest on the lake, was Santiago Atitlán, renowned for having expelled both the army and the guerrillas in 1990 following a massacre by the military of some 13 townspeople. Tourism is down this summer at the lake and in Guatemala in general, and our group was constantly assaulted by vendors during the nearly three hours we were there. Half the group visited the house of Maximón, a rather bizarre figure revered by many Catholics, both Mayan as well as some Ladinos (mestizo/mixed-blood Guatemalans who identify themselves with the Hispanic culture). There is a brotherhood that cares for him, his house moves yearly among the members of the brotherhood, and believers come to pray to the image of the “saint” and make offerings such as cigarettes and alcohol so that he will grant their petitions, which may be not only for “good” things but also for the punishment of enemies. The decoration of his shrine is about as tacky as one can imagine, including plastic decorations and the repeated playing of a recording of Jingle Bells, but it is a fascinating cultural expression of religious belief combining indigenous and Hispanic elements.
July 17th: All went smoothly with the medical delegation’s departure. At about 8:30 a.m., I called our guide/driver Lucas, and he took me to the Catedral Santiago, the Saint James Episcopal Church, where I had arranged to meet with the priest, the Rev. Art Tripp, following the worship service. I got his contact information through a Juniata alumnus, Bill Fegan ’48, an Esther Doyle protégé who has assisted with and participated in a number of concert choir tours. Russ Shelley has charged me with scouting venues to organize the Spring Break 2013 Concert Choir Tour, and I had an enjoyable and productive conversation with Art and his wife Rojita (a nickname that she received due to her red hair) discussing possible venues, housing, and itinerary options for the tour. So not only did I don hats as a medical assistant and teacher, I am now an entertainment impresario. Anything for Russ and Juniata’s matchless choir.
3 Comments on "Medical Mission – Juniata Contingent Helps Guatemalans" »
January 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm Juniata Magazine - Extra pingbacked:
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September 19, 2012 at 7:18 am Augustine Leflar said: