Another day in Guatemala! I think I've come here now about 50 times. Every trip brings new adventures, new challenges and always joy! And have we been successful? Walt Whitman said "If the day and night be such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more immortal - that is your success." So yes, then if that is the definition, we have surely been successful. Every day and night here surely bring joy."
So many of you have supported our work here. I wish I could give you just a small sense of how your support has really made it a better world for the people we work with. Today we went to a very remote village called Santa Amelia. 100 women dressed in beautiful Indigenous garb were lined up to suffer through their pap smears! There was so much giggling going on! For many of them, it was their first time so of course the giggling got them through the hours of waiting for a little torture! Too many of them knew of others who have died prematurely from cervical cancer and so the visit was wrought with a lot of apprehension. Myself and Courtney, our med student, and Mayra, our Project Director worked away trying to make sure everyone would be seen. Social workers from the Municipality were there to help us process all the paperwork.
In the midst of the busyness, one young woman came in looking especially apprehensive. She was one of our previous patients whom we can honestly say will live a full life only because of this work. She previously came for a pap which showed a precancerous lesion which was very close to invasive disease. After a procedure we previously did and extensive evaluation, we arranged for her to have a hysterectomy which was done. Today she came in with her pathology report which showed that THANK GOD her uterus was removed in time….
Of course she didn’t understand any of the words in the pathology report so when we told her that she was cured, she broke into such a beautiful smile. I thought about all the people who made her “cure” possible and how now her 6 children would now have their mother with them as they grow. She was happy to let us take her picture and share her story with you all.
So much to thank our God for here!
The second day at the clinic, a couple of street dogs came wandering onto the property. Street dogs are everywhere in Guatemala and pretty much reviled by everyone. The dogs spend all day scavenging and scrounging whatever scraps of food they can find, sleep on the ground wherever they feel safe, are malnourished and flea/parasite infested, and often get run over because they don’t have the energy to move fast enough out of the way of speeding cars. Local people constantly harass and shoo them away with rocks, kicks, and hisses. The dogs are pretty skittish because of it. On the hierarchy of Guatemalan animals, street dogs hold a place just above rats. The pigs and chickens that also roam around are viewed more favorably. They can be eaten.
So these two street dogs came wandering onto our property and started nosing around. They were both males and one was pretty big, around 40 pounds, and the other was maybe 20 pounds soaking wet. They seemed to be buddies, but were going about their scavenging business separately. I watched them awhile and for kicks named the big one Taco and the small one Taquito. After awhile they left and I thought that would be the end of it, but a few hours later Taquito came back.
The truth is street dogs are a pretty good analogy for Guatemala and the poor who live here. A developing country like Guatemala has a long history of being kicked around and fending off rocks thrown by bigger, stronger, more developed countries including the United States. Minerals, timber, crops, etc. have been and still are illegally extracted, cut down, grown, and sold in highly unsustainable ways on the backs of laborers who have no unions, no safety and health protections, no real opportunities, basically just a life of hard work and exploitation. The wealthy who control this action get richer and richer and the poor barely survive. Like street dogs, the poor in Guatemala are at the bottom of society’s list.
Anyhow, Taquito must have liked what he saw and kept hanging around here. After a few days, some of our team members (OK, it was me) felt sorry for him and gave him some leftovers from dinner and breakfast. Of course after that we were best buddies, and he’d come when I called and enjoyed a good scratch and rub. The other team members got to know and love him just as much and now he sleeps every night on one of the doormats outside our rooms at the hostel. He doesn’t seem to prefer one over the other… he must be a socialist!! We (OK, me again) bought him a collar, gave him deworming medicine, and (with the help of one of the medical students) gave him a flea shampoo. The school kids and the other SewHope staff have gotten to know him and like him a lot. He enjoys meal time with them (and the many fallen bits of kids’ food).
So Taquito’s status has risen. I like to think he’s more hopeful that his life will be good, similar to the people we serve and the stories you’ve read in prior blog posts. I don’t know what will happen to Taquito after we leave. But I know I’m going to leave behind a big bag of dog food with his name on it. I hope he’ll have a better life for at least a little while, and I hope he’ll still be hanging around when I return.
It’s been a couple of days since I wrote the above and we’ve learned something about Taquito. One of the local people recognized him and said he was abandoned by a family that moved away. So Taquito’s an orphan, and I guess for now all of us at the clinic including the school kids, staff, and patients will get to be his adoption family. He’ll surely get lots of attention and love now. One of our night guards was talking to Anne about Taquito. She told the guard he now has a new friend. The guard replied that Taquito also has a new friend!
Randy Ruch is a founding member of SewHope. He joined us in Guatemala (for the umpteenth time) to lend a hand around the property (and make friends with the local dogs) while the medical team worked in the clinic.
Sunday was spent touring the Mayan city of Tikal with a few of the school children at SewHope. After a hot and sweaty hike through the jungle, hoping monkey caca wouldn't fall on our heads, and climbing nearly 200 steps, the jungle opened up as we approached the top of Temple IV. The site was breathtaking. And as the terrified kids pressed their bodies against the temple wall to avoid the edge, I just stood in wonder. This city flourished over a thousand years ago, and even after its abandonment, people have continued to gather at their temples from all around the world. The fame of the Mayan people will live on for many many many years to come.
As we are spending our last 24 hours in this beautiful country, I am left to wonder about the legacy of SewHope, and my own legacy as well. It is obvious the impact this clinic is making in the Peten region of Guatemala, but what will it look like in 10, 15, 20 years? Over this week I have heard the dreams of both the Guatemalan and American workers. They have so many wonderful, crazy and beautiful dreams for SewHope. While I say crazy, I don't mean crazy in the bad sense. To the outsider, it may seem impossible that the heartbreak of one young doctor was transformed into a permanent clinic. And a clinic that has performed over 6000 pap smears, treating numerous women for precancerous lesions and preventing death from cervical cancer! But here it is, nonetheless!
God has been doing amazing things in Guatemala. The future may not look exactly like our dreams today, but that is simply because we can only dream so big. Our dreams are only a fraction of what God has in store. I'll be leaving a piece of my heart behind here as we return to the United States. I don't think I will ever get it back, and that's okay. I guess that just means I'll just have to keep coming back.
"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"" -Isaiah 6:8
Christian Carwell is a medical student at the University of Toledo. She has been with us at the clinic in Guatemala this past week, along with Dr. Anne, Dr. Gary, Dr. Kim, and three other medical students.
It was Hippocrates that said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I believe there is a lot of truth to that. Poor diets in America result in diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia. Poor diets in Peten result in anemia, neural tube defects, developmental delays, and a few cases of diabetes and hypertension. But food impacts more than just the physical body. It feeds the soul. In abundance, it can provide a feeling of comfort. In shortage, anxiety and fear.
This week, I have seen numerous families without adequate nutrition and numerous families with adequate nutrition. The difference is stark. Families without adequate nutrition have to face more obstacles in life. They may have a child that can’t speak or can’t walk. They may have more infections because of a poor functioning immune system. They may have rotting teeth, making it painful to eat the food they do have and leading to even less nutrition.
There is also a correlation between those that cannot afford food and other risk factors. Families with inadequate nutrition may have dirt floors and no beds. Or they may have many kids in one room or open flame stoves with poor ventilation. So addressing just nutrition is not going to be enough to change these families’ circumstances.
But by providing food and vitamins, I see hope. The kids in the after school program love snack time. The garden here feeds them with fresh fruits and vegetables that keep their minds sharp and their bodies strong. The number of families we have seen with adequate nutrition seem to be increasing. The public schools provide whole, nutritious lunches. Continuing to provide education, school lunches, and garden-grown veggies, I see how much of a positive impact it will have on the community of Santa Ana, Péten. Also, who doesn’t love good food?
Danielle Saevig is a medical student at the University of Toledo. She joined us at the clinic in Guatemala this past week, along with Dr. Anne, Dr. Gary, Dr. Kim, and three other medical students.
[Video: Chuck Hawk, a University of Toledo medical student, joins a group of Guatemalan schoolchildren for some game time at recess.]
I wanted to write my blog entry about hope. This Tuesday, Christian, Rachel and I went with Orfe [SewHope's social worker] to Mango to visit a local school. Our task was simply to distribute vitamins to the children and medications to the parents that were present at the school. As part of a new effort, we were also to apply fluoride to the children’s teeth. As the day progressed I noticed two things. First, many of the children were small for their age. Second I noticed that many of the kids were living with what appeared to be very painful cavities in the teeth. I felt sorrow for the fact that so many kids around in the world are living without food and are suffering from conditions that are preventable.
There were a few other things that about the kids that I noticed. The most apparent to me was the fact that children of the school were so joyful in spite of the circumstances. They insisted that we join them for recess. They were so full of energy and joy. I can’t help but think that they would get along perfectly with kids from back home. Another thing I noticed was how kind they were to one another. There were kids in the class with special needs and many of the students were very eager to help and embrace their peers.
So how is this post about about hope? The spirited and joyful nature of the children is what gives me hope for improvement. They don’t let their circumstances spoil their attitudes. They are constantly working to make the best of their situation. Above all, they are kind and joyful in the face of their struggle. I think that we all can learn so much from their excellent example.
Chuck Hawk is a medical student at the University of Toledo. He joined us at the clinic in Guatemala this week, along with Dr. Anne, Dr. Gary, Dr. Kim, and three other medical students.
No iPhones, no video games, no shiny, flashy, latest and greatest toys. Just laughter.
One of the most obvious contrasts to American culture that I’ve noted this week is the way in which Guatemalan children spend their time waiting. Some clinic days are busier than others, and the time in which they need to sit before seeing a doctor and then filling their medications can be well beyond an hour or two. The wild imaginations that these kids possess are so incredibly apparent, particularly because they cannot be distracted and muted by a hand-held screen. Sitting quietly is not an option, as one might expect under the circumstances. Naturally, these energizer bunnies resort to running around, playing make-believe with whoever will try to keep up, and giggling at whoever tries but can’t (mostly the medical students). Their energy is boundless, and they never seem to get bored with each other. Although it’s not universally the case among American youth, I can’t help but notice how much less creativity is employed when effortless forms of entertainment are available in the form of Youtube videos and iPhone apps. Little boys will be found racing each other by clicking buttons on their personal cellphones, and little girls will be putting makeup and pretty clothes on the animated princesses on theirs. If they can’t physically see the manifestation of their imagination, it’s as if it doesn’t exist and they mope until the internet connection is reestablished.
This isn’t to say that technology is malignant to children, but being temporarily immersed in a culture where playing doesn’t require expensive and extravagant tools is simply refreshing. Give a group of kids a ball and they’ll kick it around for hours on end. Give them paper and markers and they’ll draw on every last inch. Childhood is such an innocent time, and I truly believe it should be preserved as much as possible. As a future pediatrician, I hope to see outdoor play and creativity make a comeback because kids are meant to be unplugged.
Courtney Rusch is a medical student at the University of Toledo. She joined us at the clinic in Guatemala this week, along with Dr. Anne, Dr. Gary, Dr. Kim, and three other medical students.
Everything is the same, only different.
No matter how many times I visit Guatemala, I am struck by both the similarities and the differences between "us" and "them." Much of human behavior is universal, but growing up in poverty with poor health and limited education may affect life choices that individuals have to make.
Due to the "accident of birth," my soul was born into a middle class American family and not into the developing world. How can I relate to the life experiences of the people that I am trying to help? Do I have the right to judge the behaviors they exhibit and the life choices that they make? The best that I can hope to do is to watch, listen and learn.
When children come into our clinic with abdominal pain, cough, headaches and rash, we have consider factors in their environment such diet, parasites, dehydration and stress from poor school performance or family violence. We have no access to their prior medical history, which increases the challenge. We try to give them the health information that they need to deal with some of these issues, but changing habits here is as hard as it is at home.
The patience of people here is remarkable! On Sunday I waited in long lines for my three flights down and a seven hour layover in Guatemala City and I was not a happy camper. This week we have long lines of Guatemalans waiting so patiently in hopes of seeing a doctor. I don't know if this is because they live in the moment and accept what God gives them, or a learned sense of hopelessness makes them seem patient. I enjoyed the previous post from a medical student talking about the hopefulness of the younger girls compared with teenagers. Maybe if we can help and keep our promises with these kids, their hope won't die. Just by coming here, we show them that there is hope and they are loved and that their life has meaning.
Each trip presents new challenges and we learn so much! It is remarkable how much SewHope has progressed in the past ten years. With God's help, I can only imagine how much more we can accomplish in the next ten years.
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." 1 John 4:7-8 NIV
Dr. Gary Collins is a Toledo, OH-based pediatrician and a member of SewHope's Board of Directors. He has joined SewHope for numerous trips to Guatemala, and is at the Santa Ana clinic this week, helping to care for our youngest patients (and teaching some medical students along the way!).
Racquel Sohasky is a medical student currently with Dr. Coral Matus on a trip to Guatemala.
"This morning Darshana, Sammy, and I stayed behind at the clinic while Clay, Brent, and Dr. Matus went to the birthing center in El Chal. While at the clinic we spoke with two groups of girls about ourselves, our futures, and our aspirations. We shared with them where we were and where we saw ourselves going. Through this, we also were able to ask them about their lives and their hopes for the future. We spoke with twelve year olds who wanted to be archeologists and ten year olds aspiring to be physicians. We were inspired by these things and encouraged them to pursue their dreams. The girls are truly both intelligent and kind. They have great potential and purpose, and are in need of great role models guide them and to push them forward.
It was hard to see the stark difference between the first and second group we spoke with. The older girls in the second group were much more hesitant to be open with us. They were still curious, but many of them had already decided they wouldn’t go on to high school. It was difficult to even break the ice with them, and unfortunate to see their self confidence and motivation decreasing. Nonetheless, we enjoyed getting to know them and sharing some experiences. Maybe something we said will stick with a few of them, and that in itself would be worthwhile. Not every interaction is going to be easy, but each one is valuable and a learning experience on both ends."
Clayton is one of the medical students currently on a trip with Dr. Coral Matus
In the land of verdant green and sun,
In rolling hills and views that stun,
I came to help, or so was the goal
With my meager knowledge, mi poquito español.
Instead, it is I who benefits the most.
I learn from patients, I listen engrossed.
I see compassion and skill and drive
After which to emulate I ardently strive
In Dr Matus and all the staff here.
This, I think, this is what I want in a career.
This is a place where people are loved well,
Where needs are met, where empowerment excels.
It really ought not be surprising
That here esperanza is rising.
My trip to Guatemala was my first trip to a developing country and my first global health opportunity. It has been something I have wanted to do for a long time, and I feel that God placed SewHope into my path at just the right time. I have developed such a strong passion for women’s health. When I read about SewHope and their work here in Guatemala, I knew instantly that I wanted to get involved. My time here in this beautiful country has far exceeded my expectations and has left an impression on my heart that I will carry with me always.
I got the privilege to be part of the first group to stay in the beautiful hostel right on the grounds where the SewHope clinic is. I was filled with so much peace on the first morning, waking up and watching the sun rise over the grounds. As time went on, this became routine for me --watching the sun rise in the mornings, and set over the land in the evenings as I reflected on the day. The first few days of clinic we saw follow-up patients whom had an abnormal pathology on their pap smears. Many women returned for further examination, biopsies, or treatment with cryotherapy or LEEP, likely preventing some of them from later developing cervical cancer. Unfortunately, we did have a few women whom were diagnosed with cervical cancer, which served as a reminder of the importance of continuing this work and expanding outreach to more Guatemalan women.
When we went out into the villages, I got an eye opening experience to what life in Guatemala was truly like. I think the most impactful for me was going into the village of Santa Amelia. We traveled along a bumpy dirt road for over 2 ½ hours to reach the village. It was an incredibly beautiful drive. The sun was shining as we took in the scenery of a beautiful green countryside full of rolling hills, flowers, palm trees and ranchers with their cattle. But I couldn’t help but think how hard it was for the people in the village to be so removed from everything. From fresh food, water, healthcare, etc. When we arrived into the village we were greeted by a large group of women. In total we did 99 pap smears that day. While there, we had lunch at a family’s house in the village. A young boy came on his bike and guided our van to their house. We were greeted by a man who was so happy to host us. He told us that they killed their chicken just for us that day! Dinner was served in a one room house, made from blocks and concrete. Inside the home were two cots, two hammocks above holding their small collection of belongings, and a large table to eat around. The home had no electricity, so we enjoyed lunch in the dim light that came through a single window cut out from the stone. For those who clearly had so little, their hospitality and warmth were abundant.
As we went into other villages, I saw the homes they were living in, and learned how so many families are getting by on just a few dollars a day. In one of these villages, we met with a group of women to arrange for them to come to the SewHope clinic for pap smears the next day. They expressed their desire to come later in the morning, as the municipality turns on the water every other day from 7-9am. Access to water every other day for two hours!!! It’s so hard for me to imagine, but this is the reality that they face every day.
Although this trip has been eye opening to me, it has filled me with so much hope that SewHope can continue to not only make strides in preventing cervical cancer, but also continue to impact and empower the surrounding communities. I think one of the biggest hopes lies in the children, to inspire them to work hard and to continue to learn and prosper. I was able to travel to Tikal National Park with a group of the kids from the school here at SewHope. I was really touched by their curiosity and strong desire to learn. We took a tour of the jungle and Mayan Ruins. The kids listened intently as our guide told the history of the Mayans and talked about different plants and animals we encountered. Many of them brought notebooks and took notes along the way, helping each other spell new words or fill in information they weren’t able to hear.
I will forever be thankful for this trip, the experiences I’ve gained, the lessons, and the people I have met along the way. Goodbye Guatemala. Until we meet again!
As our programs and our efforts in Guatemala have grown over the years, we have decided to bring on a full time person to join our U.S. team and help us make an even greater impact there! We have had the very great fortune to find Rachel Easley, a young woman with great vision, significant international experience, solid education but most of all, a heart and mind centered on making this a bit better world every day.
She came with me this past week to Peten and below are some words from her about her first experience there.....
"I could feel it when I first arrived: something special about the SewHope clinic. Ismael had picked us up at the airport and driven Doctor Anne and me here, and as we pulled into the gravel parking lot I tried to find a good word to describe this feeling.
“Is there a word for ‘home’ in Spanish, different from ‘house’?” I asked Ismael. He didn’t know an equivalent.
There’s something in the atmosphere here that feels like walking into your home at Christmastime, where the warm envelopes you as you step in from the cold and a fire is crackling and someone is baking cookies and all of your favorite family members are laughing and talking and playing board games. Except it’s hot and humid here, and maybe drizzling, and there are no cookies, and I’m new here so everyone is a stranger. But the feeling remains.
Then I walked through the clinic and saw what Ismael and Anne and all the others involved in SewHope had built: the multi-colored aisle of exam rooms, the school children engaged in their lessons, the new hostel for hosting groups, the papaya trees and mango trees and rows and rows of peppers and cilantro and heirba mora (a local plant). I feel a new word now: Paradise.
Here the sick are healed, the hungry are fed, the illiterate are educated, and the poor are given opportunity. Like Paradise. Like Heaven, maybe.
Except not always. Not every sick person who comes here can be healed. A good meal at school doesn’t fix a broken family at home. Sometimes the neighbors burn their land, and the smoke kills our crops.
So not Heaven, not yet. If it’s a Paradise, it’s a messy one.
But there is something Special here, some sort of mending of the rift between Heaven and Earth. Here it seems that the Kingdom of God is not so far away. It’s here in our teacher Seiner, as he loves and guides and instructs each of the children who show up in his classroom, regardless of where they come from or what their home life is like. It’s here in the hands of Elder, who works in the gardens, as he tills the earth, and carefully tends the chickens, and teaches the women from the community how to plant and weed and harvest. It’s here in our nurse Mayra, as she greets patients affectionately, and listens to their needs, and offers healing and comfort and medicine. It’s here in our director Ismael, as he coordinates programs, and supervises staff, and drives the “school bus” to pick up kids who live too far away, and takes care of visitors, and watches over the whole operation like a proud father (and does a million other things!).
I do believe that someday Heaven in its entirety will come to Earth: there will be no more sickness or broken families or violence. But for now, this is our imperfect Heaven, where we work hard and pray hard and love hard. A little broken, a lot beautiful: our own messy Paradise."
Thank you Rachel for your willingness to help us spread a little more peace, love and understanding in a part of the world that has been so oppressed for so very long....we thank God for bringing you to us!
Subject: The Joy of ReadingToday we had the pleasure of distributing a variety of books donated from a used book program in New York City. They were donated from an old school friend of Anne's who had actually left her engineering job to teach math to an inner city school in the city. It was very rewarding to see my efforts in transporting the books from New York through the airports in Guatemala greatly appreciated. The children treat the books so delicately, more so than I have ever seen in a typical school in the United States. They were very eager to start reading the books and flip through the pages.
Because SewHope's education program is structured primarily through online learning, the students are not often used to flipping the pages or reading aloud. The 400 books previously donated from a school in Toledo were well worn and read numerous times! And of course the children have the bible story books they have are treasured but what a joy for them to just get new books with new stories for them to explore the world with!
Today each child selected a book to read aloud to one of SewHope's volunteers. Not only did the students get to impress us with their reading skills, but listening to the students read is a great way for us to improve our Spanish skills too. After the school day finished, our volunteers took inventory of all the new books. This inventory allows the students to check books out from SewHope's bookshelves to read at home. Since books are extremely costly in Guatemala and the Guatemalan library system differs greatly than in the United States, checking out a book is unique for students who attend the SewHope program. By checking out a book, their eagerness for reading extends beyond the classroom to inside their home with their siblings.
It is my hope that the children will find a book where they can fall in love with the story. Even though it may seem difficult to find books translated in Spanish that are culturally relevant in Guatemala, this suitcase full of books contained serval characters offering Latinx representation. Some of the stories are related to farming, which is a familiar lifestyle to many of our students. (The majority of SewHope students' fathers work on a farm that exports pineapple and papaya). Other stories have relatable characters. One story in particular, called "Esperanza Renace" embodies themes of hope through a strong, optimist female character. I'm hopeful that some of the teenage girls in SewHope's program can find this character empowering. Within the next week, I plan to organize a bookclub to see how the students are enjoying the books. It gives me great joy to know SewHope's bookshelves are growing and so are the students' love for reading.
These past few weeks have been dedicated to teaching the students in SewHope’s Education program the importance of washing their hands, brushing their teeth and making healthy choices. After seeing many cases of diabetes among the women in our clinic, “Doctora Ana” led an engaging discussion in the classroom about the importance of eating healthy and reducing soda intake. Students watched a video from the CDC about the importance of hand washing. They have also listened to their classmate read about the importance of brushing their teeth from a local newspaper article. A descriptive poster now hangs in the classroom for students to read when they wait in line for their toothpaste. Using this poster, I explained how the formation of plaque and cavities are created (which is new information to some of the students).
All 83 children in the SewHope program are provided with a toothbrush. Even though a toothbrush may not seem like much, I think the students like having something they can call their own at school. Before we go outside for snack, the children pick out their labeled toothbrush with their name printed on it. They then line up to excitedly wait and receive toothpaste. Brushing my teeth along side them, I demonstrate how to use toothpaste and water conservatively. It has become part of their routine to wash their hands, eat their snack and brush their teeth.
Despite cases seen at our clinic that may have been prevented in an environment with higher public health standards, SewHope’s classroom, attached to the clinic, offers a receptive learning environment where we can teach the next generation healthy habits. Through washing their hands every day, eating a healthy, nutritious snack, and brushing their teeth, students learn these healthy habits. It is our hope that these habits the children develop in SewHope’s Education program continue into their adulthood.
Here's two little stories of the little miracles that come with prayer.
The other morning our team came out to our waiting area and asked the patients to join us in prayer. Ismael acknowledged the goodness of our God, thanked Him and asked Him to bless our work, to give us guidance, to help us bring healing. He prayed for all the patients that were there. In my church at home, we have a time at every service where our Pastor asks if anyone has any special prayer of thanks or petition that they would like to share. Often, when those prayers are said, there may be someone or many in the congregation who may be able to be an answer to that person’s prayer. So I added at the end “Does anyone have any special prayer they would like to offer or say?”
I don’t think that kind of thing is customary here so Ismael quickly said “Any of you can pray with any of us when you come back.”
So my first patient came in – a 70 year old woman with many of the infirmities that come with the reality of getting older – diabetes, arthritis, lots of aches and pains. I did my exam, gave her a pap smear, offered some medications that might help and then she said “Would you pray for me now?”
Thinking she had some particular problem in her life that needed prayer, I asked “Is there anything special you would like to pray about?” She smiled broadly and said “No, I just think that if you would pray for me, I would feel so much better. I think it would take my pain away and make me feel less worried.”
“Wow”, I thought. “you must think I’m capable of a whole lot more than I do!” I wanted to tell her that I don’t have any closer connection to the Almighty than she does….that I’m just a flawed little person trying to find some purpose in this world. I felt like her request was one of the biggest things I’ve ever been asked to do. You’re saying that just ME praying might make you better!
I’m honestly not AT ALL one of those people who is good at praying out loud. You know how some people can just go from 0 to 90 in one second and invoke all this inspiration and feeling of God’s presence in their prayers. Well I am definitely not one of those. But I just felt so much responsibility….. like she was asking me, an unworthy person, to bring her healing in a way that was so much grander than any medication or surgery.
So I said ok and closed my eyes and held her hands. I paused for a minute (another hard thing for me to do!) and just really asked God to give me the right words (in Spanish, nonetheless!). I don’t even know what I said but whatever it was, she started crying and squeezing my hands so tight. Whoever God is, I could just totally feel Him in our presence – that Spirit that we talk about was just so right there.
The prayer didn’t last very long – maybe a minute or two. At the end, she just hugged me and said she wouldn’t forget this and she was so grateful.
Maybe she thinks some Gringa doctor has some connection with our God that the average person doesn’t have! All I know is that she believed in God and she believed in me. Perhaps God sent her to me to show me the power of prayer – of how when we humble ourselves and ask with a pure heart, anything can happen.
The next day, we had a group of women come for treatments for their precancerous lesions of the cervix. Some of these lesions are pretty significant and they need a procedure done that has some risks. I’ve done it here many, many times. Sometimes it is very easy and other times, there can be some complications that make it a bit more challenging. I had been emailing Randy just 30 minutes before and telling him how the day was going so well and all the procedures were going without a hitch. Don’t I know after all these years that you should never say anything like that!!! God will surely humble you in a second if you start to feel a bit cocky! Inevitably, as soon as you say that, problems start.
So I started this procedure on this woman. There were many reason why it was more complicated but without boring my non-medical audience here, suffice it to say that it was a challenge. The next thing I know, my “loop” (connected to electricity so that it should burn as it goes thus eliminating bleeding) must have hit what Dr. Phibbs used to call the “wandering vein of hemorrhage”!
In one second, it was like I just put a hole in a major pipe and the blood came pouring out. Now at home, this is easy. The patient is asleep so you can manipulate things without them moving. You have great light, lots of assistants, any tool you want at your disposal. But here that is not the case. My heart started pounding thinking about what would happen if I couldn’t get this controlled quickly.
Now the patient had NO idea this was happening. There was a drape so she couldn’t see anything. I didn’t say a word. But a few seconds later she just started praying quietly out loud. And somehow I just knew everything would be OK. Somehow I was able to place sutures quickly in the midst of a stream of blood that blinded my visibility and everything was fine. Again, it was like the Spirit of God just swooped in, brought calm and gave me the ability to do something that was almost beyond my reach.
At home of course, the same thing would have brought a flurry of people and instruments and better light and better attention from everyone. Here, when those things don’t exist, you just invoke the power of God and prayers seem to be constantly answered.
Believe me, I’m not bashing modern technology in medicine – it is incredible. But maybe a little prayer and faith in God’s power would help a bit too! Maybe we should all offer more prayers to each other. Maybe when we say “I will pray for you…we should really do it.” That presence of the Spirit is an awfully nice thing to have around!
From my last visit here in May, I can see how students have progressed in their mathematical knowledge, reading fluency and reading comprehension. Eight months ago I remember working with a boy on basic subtraction and today he consistently answered challenging division facts. There is also a handful of seven and eight year olds who are accurately dividing and simplifying fractions. It is very impressive to watch them complete this mathematical process, sometimes even in their head. Frequently students will raise their hand to ask a teacher a question related to their mathematics on Khan Academy, only for their friend sitting next to them to eagerly explain the answer to them. By listening to how a student explains the answer to his/her classmate, it becomes evident just how well they know the material. This daily occurrence is just one example of how I can easily see the positive impact Sew Hope's education program has for all students.
SewHope certainly provides a nurturing environment for increasing literacy. Last May I remember assisting a five year old sound out words as she was learning to read. After listening to her classmates read the children's bible to close the end of the morning’s class day after day, she now reads aloud to her classmates. Although I am not an expert on grade standards in the United States, the book that this six year old girl fluently reads certainly surpasses the first grade level. Additionally, I asked one of the older students what she likes about the math program here. She explained that she likes how she can answer challenging questions she does not get asked at school. I am very thankful SewHope offers an opportunity for all students to grow academically and spiritually. If it were not for the support and resources SewHope provides to its students, many of these students would not be able to see how they can excel academically. Their evident academic growth and eagerness to continue learning inspires me every day.
Attached is a video of a girl reading her favorite page (upon my request), while another student summarizes the stories the class read. I believe this video is representative of SewHope’s positive impact.
I think this is about my 40th trip to Guatemala – every time my experiences here are so full of everything that God promises us in Galatians 5:22-23
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
On these trips, I’m always surrounded by the most wonderful people – the beautiful Guatemalan people and of course, those who work with us here as well as those who come with us. The people suffer from things we could never imagine in the United States but through it all, they smile and praise God and take care of each other.
Two people came with me on this trip. Tim Kuhn is an engineer in Toledo. This is his fifth trip. Along with a few other great men, he has been responsible for getting all the electric work done in our clinic and now in our hostal. He’s a quiet, highly capable and resourceful person who spends the days working every minute to maximize his effort. In between seeing my patients, I see him zooming around, climbing ladders, digging ditches, laying electric wires, installing electric boxes and while doing it he is endlessly cheerful. He’s always looking for ways to improve our facilities and thus improve the lives of those who visit us.
Meridith Heckler is a third year student at Kenyon College. This is her second trip and she is here for 3 weeks. Her dream is to become a teacher and wow, did she ever find her calling! She spends long days with our children in the after-school program inspiring and loving them. When she was here last May, she only knew French but she was determined to be able to communicate with these children. Spending the last 10 months in an intensive language experience, she now she is actually quite conversant with them!!
I have never seen anyone with the patience and love for children that she has! She just marvels at the success of each child and makes each and every one feel that they are precious. They all flock to her now. And while she is only here for a few weeks, she is integral to our work because she is helping us find gaps in our program that can be made better and she’s surely helping us realize that indeed the students are thriving even more than we had imagined! Meridith honestly delights in the great advances she has seen in the children since her last visit here less than a year ago. Her blogpost is coming!
So I’m attaching a few photos of what's happening here! Thank you all for making this work possible.
Sometimes God happily reveals himself in moments of doubt.
So it’s been a lot of trips, a lot of years coming here. Of course, the longer I come here the more the people of Guatemala become my friends, my family. With each trip, the language gets a bit more comfortable, the culture a little more ingrained in my heart.
The longer I do this, the more I challenge myself with questions about whether it is right. “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing, the right way? Sure we shouldn’t be just spending our efforts on the poor in our own city? Sure this is really worth the great generosity of all the people who contribute? Sure this is not just a way to justify your existence, to overcome a sense of duty? Sure you’re not imposing yourself on another culture??
The first few days down here on this trip were a bit overwhelming – dozens of ladies lined up desperately looking for answers to their problems. It’s hot. Everyone on our team is working so hard. I hope I’m not asking too much of them.
I said a quiet prayer one morning asking God to give me a little assurance that all of this is the right thing.
I ask God these things a lot at home but the answers rarely come. Here, the little miracles just never stop and as always, I got my answers in a matter of hours.
When we came back to the hotel that night, I saw the woman I had done the "hotel pap" on last year. Six ladies that work in the hotel where we stay had asked if I could possibly do their paps at the hotel. I happily agreed but when that evening came, it was the last thing I felt like doing. I almost secretly wished they had forgotten about it. But no, there they were – all dressed up!
So we went in a room and I did their paps. And incredibly enough, a few weeks later when the results came back, one of the six had an early stage cancer....She of course had not had any symptoms and was as surprised as I was. We had arranged to have her go to the only cancer hospital in Guatemala but that was the last we heard. And now here she was.....
She gave me this enormous hug and we both filled up with tears. She told me she had her full treatment in Guatemala City and now she is hopefully cured.
It gave me more than the assurance I needed that this indeed worth it.
At a time that I am so very disillusioned at what is happening in my own country and so disgusted at what I am hearing, I feel so much happiness and contentment being here. There is just such a sense that we are all God’s people – all created the same in His eyes and all with the call to just take care of each other – doesn’t matter what color, what language, what level of income – just a call to be God’s people in unity.
Sometimes God happily reveals himself in moments of doubt.
“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” -Angela Schwindt
Here are some thoughts from Sara Aja, a young pharmacist who has joined us here in Guatemala this week.
Today is my third day in the classroom at SewHope.
I have always loved being around children, but there is something so different about this group of kids. I help with Sunday school at my church in the United States and it seems like a constant struggle to keep children engaged and on track. Here children come in and sit right down at their computers. They grab their workbooks and begin their math programs without being prompted, and they continue to work until they are directed to their next task. They all seem so eager to learn, and I wonder what we have done to take away that eagerness from children in the US.
Several older students volunteer their time to help the younger ones, and when a child seems to be struggling with a problem their peers try to assist them. So not only are they staying on task without much direction from their teacher, but they demonstrate teamwork and joy in learning. The best part of all of this is that they are here by choice, it is November and all of these kids are on their version of summer break from school. Children in the program at Sew Hope also go to public school during the year and come here a few times per week to supplement their education. Each day they are here for 4 hours. They CHOOSE to be here and seek to learn.
I think for many of them this environment gives them something productive to do. If the children weren't here they would be at home helping their mothers around the house or not doing much of anything. Each day here they spend time in math and reading, and have time for games together in the front yard.
Most days I've been here they also spend time reading a bible story together. Today we read about the disciple Paul and how he once was a bad man but found the Lord and sought to bring glory to his name.
This time is also used to practice the children's ability to read aloud in a round robin style each taking turns. After we finished reading, everyone helped put the supplies away from the morning and made their way outside for lunch. For lunch one of the mothers cooks here for all of the students. It is amazing to me how quickly they all eat! After lunch each goes to find their toothbrush on the wall of toothbrushes and their teacher Seiner gives them a little toothpaste. When their teeth are cleaned and bellies are full they head home for the day.
Seiner has two groups- one in the morning and one in the afternoon. He is an AMAZING teacher! He provides a lot of one on one time with each student while they are working on their math or reading, and he plans fun games and activities for them each day. Yesterday I was on one of the teams for a relay race, I felt bad for my team because I was the slow one. Beyond his planning abilities, Seiner is also patient, calm, smart, and so creative! I am inspired by his love and attitude for these children!
And truly I am inspired by each of these children through their simple joys found in each day.
I think poverty here is far worse than poverty in the poorest of countries.
Thanks to the great efforts of Ken Leslie and a whole cadre of people who have hearts like I've never seen, I had the privilege today of volunteering at "Tent City" which is described as a "weekend-long event in Toledo that delivers the entire community's compassion to those who often see none."
For those of you who know me, I've spent many years working with the poorest in one of the poorest countries in the world, Guatemala. But today I heard stories that made me cry more than I’ve ever cried in that poorest country. I thought I had heard it all in Guatemala - 14 people living on a dirt floor in one room with almost no food. Children dying prematurely. Mothers dying in childbirth all too often. But somehow the stories today were harder to hear - especially when they were from people living in the richest country in this world. I left today sobbing thinking how it's really just not right. How can a country like ours with so many people living in comfort, in security, in wealth ALLOW this kind of human tragedy to be in their midst. How can I?
I saw hundreds of people today who have had their dignity taken away.
I asked one woman "So where do you live?" And she said "Oh, not too far from here. There's a grassy spot on the corner of such and such where I usually stay. But sometimes I get to sleep inside a room that’s warm but I don't like it too much because they sell me.
And I responded in confusion "They sell you...like for sex?" And she says "Yeah, I hate it because I wake up and there's some guy on top of me"
And then I say "So you get some money?" And she says "No, but I get a warm place to sleep"
And with that...I was without words....really? really? 8 miles from where I live with everything I could ever want, you have to experience that?
So what happened to the whole idea of God-given souls created equally? You know, those souls that we pro-life people fight for with such passion? The souls that we Christians say are so important because our God created them? Do we not all as Americans have a bit of responsibility to fight for those souls?
We're not even talking about food or shelter or water.....we're talking about the most basic of basics....dignity. There are more people here in our country living in LONELINESS than there are in Guatemala.
How on earth does the United States say it's OK for our own citizens to live like this?
My eyes were opened in a whole new way today. I thank you Steve North for your passion to open the eyes of people like me to see the plight of those who are the most desperate.
I often read about the existence of millions of hungry people in Latin America. When I am there, no one appears starving because of the easy access to corn tortillas which are incredibly cheap. They fill the hunger pains but not only do they not do much for nutrition, they also contribute to the massive level of type 2 diabetes.
So mostly the people don’t complain of hunger.
But I started asking more about it on this trip. What do you eat for breakfast? “Tortillas y sometimes frijoles” For lunch….the same. For dinner….the same
But I was particularly touched by one of the very lovely and exceptional students in our program.
“Did you eat breakfast this morning?”
Her eyes got really big and she said...
“Because we don’t have any food. Ni café, ni azucar, ni nada” (not coffee, sugar or anything).
Thinking she may be exaggerating a bit, I asked “So what do you eat?”
I eat the food that you give us everyday at the school.
I recently read an interpretation of the parable of the multiplication of the loaves (Mark 6:34-44) written by Father Frei Betto, a Brazilian priest, journalist and theologian who was an activist for the cause of the poorest in Central America
In this gospel story, 5000 men had just heard Jesus’ sermon. The disciples suggested that Jesus buy them something to eat. Jesus’ response was that the disciples could “give them” something to eat. (In reality, there was plenty of food to go around). Jesus didn’t ask how much money the disciples had…he asked how many loaves they had. Throughout the gospels, the distribution of bread symbolizes the Father’s kindness and food is associated with life’s abundance. At this event, Jesus realized that of course there were all kinds of vendors at that event selling food. In reality, there were many fishes and many loaves. Does this mean there was not a miracle? Of course there was a miracle. But there was not magic. Magic would be the spectacular action of taking the loaves and fish and saying “abracadabra” and suddenly food appears. The miracle was to alter the natural course of things….changing people’s hearts so that now they were willing to share their goods so that no one would be hungry.
If you are reading this and you would like to help us send more food, please do so. We need your help. It’s not easy to help a whole lot of starving people.