This winter I was privileged to travel to rural Guatemala with Jo’s Nurses as part of Guatemala Village Health to provide desperately needed primary care to remote Mayan communities. I had wanted to do a trip like this for some time, and just missed a chance to travel with Jo’s Nurses a number of years ago. Two kids and 6+ years later, I finally got my chance – and I am so grateful I did.
It was important for me to find a group that partnered collaboratively with local communities, empowered locals, and that focused on sustainable programs and a long-term outlook. I strongly encourage all nurses to look for organizations with similar goals.
I traveled with an amazing group of providers and nurses, and we worked with an equally amazing group of paid and volunteer local staff. We saw anywhere from about 40-80+ patients each day. With a couple of loaded up trucks and a school bus, we would travel with all our supplies and equipment to each village, set up, see as many people as we could, and then take it all down and head back to wherever we were staying. Many of the villages were a 1-2 hour (each way) drive up into the mountains. Generally, homes were plank or stick-walled with thatch roofs, 1 room with a dirt floor. No electricity or plumbing – water was from a local river or well, but not potable by western standards. Local diets consisted largely of beans and corn, with the unfortunate occasional presence of western-style junk food that would get brought in. Malnutrition was a widespread issue, as were chronic problems like back pain, diabetes, hypertension, dehydration, and various infectious diseases. Local health care access was extremely minimal and inconsistent at best, just for basic primary care services.
I had never traveled to a developing country like Guatemala before. Growing up and living much of my life in Seattle, access to healthcare was something I certainly took for granted. More recently living in a more remote part of Alaska, I have had a very small glimpse of what limited access to health care can look like – though nothing like what we encountered in Guatemala. It was humbling to say the least.
Arriving at the villages each morning, there would be a large crowd of people gathered already and waiting. Our main role as nurses was doing triage – identifying needs, sorting sick from not sick, and determining what services each patient needed: lab, womens health, infant and kids programs, group education visits, seeing a provider, pharmacy, etc. The biggest challenge was working through the language barrier. My own Spanish is very limited, and going via one or two translators from the local Mayan dialect Q’eqchi’ to Spanish and then again to English, and then back, was difficult. Some things were inevitably lost in translation. The other biggest challenge was just the heat and humidity. It was a constant task to remember to drink more fluids or one would unavoidably end up dehydrated and unwell by the end of the day.
Despite these challenges, the work was rewarding – getting people the services they need, picking up a previously undetected heart murmur, catching a severely malnourished infant and intervening, a few minor surgical procedures, and more. We are so blessed with an abundance of plenty that to not try to find some way to help in the face of such great need is unimaginable to me.
The starkness of the villagers’ existence was contrasted, however, with a common humanity evident in many ways. Many of the adults were reserved, at least in their interactions with us, but things shine through – a shy smile, a quiet thank you, a mothers tender care for her child, an eagerness to help each other through language barriers.
This was perhaps most evident with the kids. The universal joy of being a child was apparent despite the conditions. Usually shy but intensely curious to start with, we were the subject of great inspection. By the end of the day, however, they would be hamming it up for a camera or running around chasing each other (and more often than not, one of us) with peals of laughter rolling through the village. This is not to romanticize the austere conditions by any means, but to simply show that we are not so different, separated perhaps only by the chance of birth. In this light, in the face of such inequity, the call to help rings loudly.
While the actual medical care and delivery was not unfamiliar, everything else – the environment, the lack of resources, the culture, the language, etc – was very different and unfamiliar. It was outside my comfort zone and challenging – in a good way, but still challenging. At times exhausting. It was really great to be there with other nurses who were experiencing a trip like this for the first time, and at the same time to have a nurse mentor who has done this before along for the trip as well. I am very grateful to Jo’s Nurses for providing this unique opportunity. Having done this now, doing a medical trip like this again does not seem like such a large undertaking. Coming home, I cannot help but wonder if I got as much out of the trip as our patients did. I find myself both more grateful and more patient, and with a renewed clarity on the priorities in my life. I hope I am able to continue to do more trips like this in the future and pay it forward. Thank you to everyone at Guatemala Village Health for allowing me to join in this trip. And thank you One Nurse At A Time for making this happen!