Guatemala Mission Trip with Faith in Practice by Suzanna Schoenfeld

That is me on the right

That is me on the right

This mission trip was with Faith in Practice, but made possible by a generous grant by One Nurse At A Time.  It was my seventh trip to Antigua, Guatemala to serve on a GYN and General Surgery team lead by Dr. Jim Stemple.  It is always a privilege to be invited to join this mission team because it is such a well oiled machine and the group really works well together.

One thing that always touches me on these trips is something that our pastor mentioned.  We have this date circled on our calendars and are excited to get to work helping people.  But sometimes we forget that our patients also have this date circled on their calendars and they are looking forward to meeting us as well.  We are excited, but they are usually scared and nervous.  I can’t imagine putting my life into the hands of strangers who act, look, and sound so differently from myself.  But they come to us.  In droves.  Our patients are screened for us by village teams that go out and look for surgical patients months in advance of our arrival.  When they show up for triage day, they are wearing their finest clothes, sometimes their wedding day outfits.  They pour out their stories through interpreters, hoping and praying that we will be able to perform surgery to help what is often long term suffering.  I have been a surgical nurse for 20 years.  What I see in surgery in Guatemala is quite astounding.  The hernias are bigger, the breast masses are fist sized, the gallbladders are complicated, and the uterine and ovarian tumors are gigantic.  We don’t see these kinds of cases in the United States because no one would wait so long to get help when they have a problem.  The Guatemalans have such limited access to health care that their conditions go untreated for years.
Another neat thing about doing surgery in Guatemala is that you are able to do so much good with the bare minimum of supplies.  We bring supplies down every year in giant trunks.  We make our own sterile “packs” with donated items and even the surgeons make due with the very limited instrumentation and supplies.  We use items we may have never seen before and save every last unused item for another day.  Sometimes it is difficult to not question the sterility of what we use because items are reused so many times, but there is no infection problem at the hospital, so I like to focus on how little we waste.
I’d like to share an experience that was hard for me this year.  Each OR room is assigned a Guatemalan circulator to assist the mission team circulator for the day.  My circulating assistant spoke very little English and we had a definite communication problem.  She was very capable of doing her job, but she had a habit of taking out the garbage in the middle of a case.  This is a big problem because if we lose a counted item in the garbage then we will never find it.  I am very sensitive to this because on my first mission trip at this hospital six years earlier, the Guatemalans were very used to removing the garbage from the room mid-case.  Well, we lost a sponge.  Everyone in the room assumed it was in the removed garbage.  I stuck to my guns and demanded an x ray.  The sponge was lodged under the patient’s liver.  Lesson learned.
I asked that the garbage not be removed until the end of the case, but because of the language barrier, my co-circulator continued to remove it.  I had to go to her boss with a translator to explain the situation.  From that point on, our language barrier became more of a personality conflict.  That made for a hard week.  I’m not sure how I could have resolved the situation with less conflict, but the issue was too important to me to not address it.  Generally speaking, my mission trips have been very rewarding, but this is a small example of the reality of cultural and work practice differences that one may experience while on a mission trip.
We accomplished 65 surgeries in the five days that we worked.  The hours were long and the work was hard, but the company was excellent and I can’t think of a better way to spend my vacation time.  Thank you, One Nurse At A Time, for making this trip possible for me.