Returning to the Medical Mission Frontlines by Kimberly Johnson, Refuge International

Long before COVID-19 was an everyday conversation topic, the Guatemalan healthcare system struggled to meet even the most basic needs of the 16.6 million citizens that live here.  MedicalSurgery (1) mission teams, especially those working in rural areas, are often the only source of health care for millions of Guatemalans. When the country shut down in March of 2020, medical mission teams were forced to cancel their service trip calendars and heartbroken at having to leave their Guatemalan communities with no support. Those that could manage it, like Refuge International, put together telehealth missions to at least address the needs of patients living with chronic health conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

Once restrictions were eased here in Guatemala, Refuge International assembled a team of clinicians back home in the States as well as an in-country team of nurses and interpreters and we returned to service through telehealth missions.  It was something new for our patients here but they were elated to see our groups “back” and able to give them the support they needed.  Earlier this year we posted our 2021 mission team calendar and got to work recruiting providers.

Medical missions can’t happen without volunteers, plain and simple. And after carrying the weight of the pandemic since last Spring, medical volunteers today often don’t have the time or the financial resources to consider joining a mission team. Life is far from normal back at home (or anywhere for that matter!).

In early May, Refuge International was scheduled to be back in San Raymundo, Guatemala with the first surgical/clinical team since February 2020. The team roster had spots filled by clinicians and an OR team. We had folks for intake, lab and pharmacy. But what we didn’t have were nurses and we were in serious jeopardy of not being able to offer the surgery services that so many Guatemalans were counting on us for. We were down to the two weeks before the trip date and thanks to a powerful word-of-mouth network, we got a call from Kim Hough, RN.  Kim had never served on a medical mission but had always wanted to. She currently worked with the general surgeon that was leading our OR team and Dr. Jay let her know we desperately needed nurses.  Kim was all in . . . except one small detail.  She could get the time off to spend a week in Guatemala but didn’t have the financial resources to make it happen.  However, we couldn’t let the conversation end there.  Nurses were vital to the team and we had to make this happen!  We were elated when One Nurse At A Time agreed to fast-track Kim’s scholarship application and Refuge International’s own network of supporters stepped up with airfare and support for other nursing spots. By the end of the week, we had heard from two other nurses that were seeking mission team opportunities. Knowing we finally had a complete team (a small but MIGHTY one at that!) gave us a moment of elation for our patients that were expecting us in San Raymundo.  Our Pre-/Post-Op nurse team, Kim, Ellen and Josie were true powerhouses. Bright smiles, compassionate hearts and confident care givers. Everyone on the team pitched in when (and where) needed and made sure no one person was stretched too thin. We could not have asked for a better group of servant hearts. The Refuge International team of 14 volunteers provided 25 surgeries, more than 300 clinic consults, well-woman exams, wound care, nutritional support and countless lab tests and prescription medications. We may not have been able to see the smiles on our patients and their families faces due to the masks we are all required to wear these days but you could see it in their eyes and hear it in their “Dios les bendiga” (God Bless You All). Our patients know the sacrifice you all make to leave your homes, families and work to come to Guatemala and share your light and love with them.

Team Photo (1)