Back in the U.S. at Miami airport… For many years, I have had a strong sense of safety and relief when I pass through “customs”. Why I no longer sense that is a little unclear and perhaps a little unsettling to me. The reality that the people I just left feel like family to me now has to be part of it.
We have just heard news of the tsunami in Japan; how sheltered we have been from the rest of the world during this week. As I look at the pictures on the airport TV’s, I’m reminded of the reality of devastation all around the world. Sitting here, I listen to travelers debating about whether taking a cruise or having a guided tour is the best type of vacation. I even heard one woman who had just returned from a medical mission comment on how glad she is to be back in the “real world”. My cynicism is growing with every visit to the poorest in “my family.”
As we ended our week in Pueblo Nuevo yesterday, it seemed that I had just finished a tragic novel with one of those endings where you wish you knew what was going to happen next. I could imagine women in a book club closing the book and sitting around discussing what might happen. Sadly, this is not a book – it is reality. I close my eyes and picture a scene from yesterday. At this moment, I say a quiet prayer that I can paint a real picture to you who are reading this.
Our day began with great excitement and anticipation. After many lonely and busy hours spent preparing to find a way to convince these villagers that changes needed to be made if their health was to improve. Dr. Coral and Dr. Gary had the opportunity to complete the Children’s Health Fair with great success. They used all their posters, videos, teaching tools and persuasion to clearly demonstrate the havoc that malnutrition, contaminated water and poor sanitation can reign on your body. The children and mothers attentively sat with somewhat terrified expressions as they saw the realities of what they are exposed to every day. After the demonstration about the importance of washing your hands was completed, one of the children shouted out “But what happens if the water is dirty??” Dr. Gary laughed and said it was almost as though the child was “planted” there to bring them to the next topic–clean water!
By the time the day was over, people were approaching us begging to be put on the list to receive water filters!
We continued the pediatric, family practice, prenatal and women’s health clinics. Our med students had learned enough during the week that they were able to take excellent histories. My hope is that all the young people on this trip will realize that giving out medications and running a “clinic” is the least of what needs to be done to improve the health of any community.
Some of the group returned to Daniel’s home and rechecked his massive ulcer. After removing the “wound vac”, they witnessed miraculous healing. His ulcer is almost gone and his mother is totally capable now of caring for what he needs.
Dr. Dave and his son, Ryan presented Daniel with a soccer ball signed by a famous Guatemalan soccer player. Yes, I remember the chapter earlier in this “book” when I first met Daniel and wondered if he would just be another Guatemalan statistic that is never told or whether he might be given another chance at life. I thank all of the people on this team and all those at home who made this miracle possible.
But the story that is the most poignant is yet to be told. The beautiful Mayan woman I wrote about earlier in the week has deteriorated. We went to her poor village home and saw that her family had moved her to a different bed. She lay like a princess covered with colorful blankets as her many grandchildren surrounded her. Several daughters stoically went about their day looking pale and shocked. One of their brothers had left the country 2 months ago in search of money and the family had taken in his 13-year-old pregnant “wife” to care for. The tragedies they had all experienced in the last 2 months had left them listless. Terrible rumors about their other brother who had run away were rampant around the village. Thoughts whirled around my mind as I considered the desperate conditions of poverty that might have driven him to the life he was now in.
Despite our latest and greatest antibiotics and intravenous solutions, Tiburcia’s fever had now returned and she was extremely weak and short of breath. Her family lovingly invited us to sit with her and we exchanged soft words. I wondered how we had come to be so trusted that they would include us in this sacred time with them. She told us that her life was over. Her son was gone and she believes that he is dead. She no longer has a will to live and in response to “ Do you want to die?”, she said “Thank you.” Her daughters tried to assure her that her son would call later that day but she knew that he hadn’t called in weeks. Although everyone has tried to shield her from the rumors, she is his mother and like all mothers, we sense the truth about our children. She knows enough about his situation to know that the reality of his having been killed is very real. She whispered over and over that her daughters were lying as they were trying to protect her.
It was one of the saddest moments of my life. This was the woman who had waited for hours and hours for me in our little make-shift clinic 4 years ago. She was the reason that I finally “got it” and realized that short term “mission” trips probably do more harm than good if not done in the context of a real commitment and respect for a community. I’ll never forget her disgust when I told her that I had run out of vitamins. She and her grandchildren had been the last “patients” of the day. Her eyes had filled up with tears and she pointed to her 4 listless grandchildren and told me “They are starving. They need vitamins.” I remember how in that single moment I realized the absurdity of all that we were doing. I asked myself “Do they really believe that? Do they really believe that vitamins are even going to begin to address their aching stomachs filled with worms, their constant fatigue and headaches from dehydration and anemia, their belief that it is “normal” for young children and women in childbirth to die?? I clearly, clearly remember that second; that second that my soul screamed at my brain and said “Really, really, do you want to continue this nonsense?” Do you really want to just keep setting up “clinics” that achieve nothing more than perpetuating this massive injustice? I thought about the reality that every time I fly to Guatemala, the plane is
filled with Americans who brag that they are helping the poor and are bringing people to Christ. Yet, they don’t have a clue about poverty.
In reality, why would we go and paint their walls? Why would we build their simple homes? Why would we hand out medicines and vitamins in programs that are short-lived and completely unsustainable? Surely these people would prefer to be given the dignity of building their own homes! Surely they deserve to be told that it is their lack of food and their filthy water that is killing them. And surely they need to be educated about the reality that it has often been the ruthless greed of wealthy nations that have reduced them to living like animals.
So in these 4 years, many incredible people have joined Randy and I in starting this project of love. We have had the great privilege of reading and learning from many tireless people who have refused to say that is OK for this world to exist as it is. Many of us have even had the joy of learning from our own children who are being educated about the reality of this massive global inequality from inspiring professors. We have had insightful, powerful spiritual leaders who have guided us in discerning God’s real “will” for how we should proceed.
In these years, our relationship with this community has grown to a level I never dreamed could be possible. I almost cry with joy when I see the improvements in nutrition, in education, in sanitation. To witness a group of people with no hope who now have “committees” and plans for a future is a testimony to God’s promise that with love, all things are indeed possible.
During each visit, Tiburcia has always been there to run and give us a huge hug. Despite her horrific rheumatoid arthritis, she has served us food and given us love. It’s hard for me to understand how we can be almost the same age and yet she feels so much older and yes, wiser.
To see her in this state is almost incomprehensible to me. I sat and cried with her. I asked her if she remembered that first visit and she smiled and said “surely”. I begged her to want to live. But she sadly looked me in the eyes and said “No, the time is come. I’m too tired. My head always hurts. My joints always ache. I can’t live without my son. I know Christ and I just want to be with him. I just want to rest. “
I begged her to remember all the others in her family, all of us who need her. I told her we’d be back in June and I wanted her to tell us her story so we could write it for all to read. At the age of 55, she has lived through the most violent of times in Guatemalan history. She is one of those who suffered greatly from the horrible Civil War that our own country was so greatly responsible for.
As she tightly grasped the cell phone that Deena left for her, longing for a call from her son, we said good-bye. As we left, her daughters hugged us and we all cried. I looked in the eyes of one daughter and said “Is it really hard to live here?” She sobbed and said ,“We have no work. We have no money. We don’t know what to do. It is so hard to have hope.“ I thought about the vicious words about “illegal aliens” that I often hear at home. Oh, if the people who say these things could only witness this scene. We walked to the bus and the chapter ended. Perhaps she will be the first one buried in the new cemetery. Perhaps there will be worse devastation for this family. Perhaps, there will be healing. But for sure, there will be a sequel.Yes, it was an inspiring, energizing week. Yes, we are making progress. But stories like Daniel's and Flori's and Tiburcia's remain. For any of you reading this, please consider joining us in this effort of love. Please pray for this community and especially now for Tiburcia and her family.
While at the end of every trip, we usually feel like things are improving, there is always the sense that there is still a mountain to be moved. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." For all of us who have spent years really feeling like we were pushing an immovable beast, we now feel as though there is a slippery pad under the mountain that just needs some pulling.
Yesterday was almost surreal. I had the great privilege of sitting in on multiple meetings which demonstrated that this community has actually realized that there is indeed hope for real change and they are grabbing on to it. The men who were previously uninvolved have actually made assignments to monitor the school each day. Seriously! The walk up and down in front of the school yard and stand there throughout the entire class time. The teachers now realize that they are being watched and so after the first day, they actually showed up on time and all 4 of them were there during the rest of the week! These very macho Latino men were laughing and describing what hard work it was to make sure the kids stayed in the building!! This has been a monumental breakthrough; something that no amount of money could have paid for! We watched them marvel at the results of the water testing and intensely watch as Pastor Julian demonstrated the water filtration system and then yes (I couldn't believe he did this...) actually drank the water in front of them!!! This was the water from the filthy pond which the cows and pigs share. Sorry, MaryKay (his wife) - it's just his nature to complete all the jobs!! All the men "passed the bottle around" laughing and drinking from the pure water.
After our earlier meeting this week, the leaders came in prepared with a long list of wants but more importantly of promises. They decided to start a fish farm project. In addition to listing off all the great advantages that this would bring to this community, they had a plan for what would be needed and how they would pay it back. They even were considering how they would handle things democratically within the community.
As I've often mentioned, one of the greatest roadblocks to this community has been the divisive nature of having different churches within a small community. Having a pastor with as much insight and education about the foundations of the church as Pastor Julian has proven to be crucial to some of these breakthroughs. Trying to get different religious communities to worship together is impossible. But trying to get people of faith who are ultimately trying to know God working together on a project for the good of the poorest is a different thing!! Julian and Ismael met with the 3 pastors (getting them in the same room was a miracle!) and they devised a plan to have an upcoming sermon devoted to how you live your life affects your health. We spent much of the week speaking individually to each of them explaining how so many of these clinic visits are really just the result of poor sanitation, filthy water and inadequate food. They were so excited to find biblical teachings on this subject and they are planning a "sermon series" on these issues.
We debated about where to put the community center, what it should look like, what the goals for it would be. They started a list of all the families who would be involved in it's creation and how greatly it would benefit the community. They eagerly discussed the library and would be in charge of it as well as the adult education program and the after school student enrichment program.
In the last post, you may have read about Tiburcia's very serious illness. She is the wife of one of the pastor's so the story we've been trying to tell truly "hit home". As she lay in the clinic gasping for air and burning with fever, Deena (our Spanish professor) was smart enough to ask them in detail about what kind of medications and herbs she has been taking. When we realized that the things she was taking were actually causing most of the problem, I quietly praised God in my mind for bringing Deena to our organization. She has translated with Gary, Coral and I enough to know ALL the right questions to ask. I think she needs to receive an honoraray medical degree!! Knowing this, we were not only able to reverse the situation, but this clearly gave us an opening to let the people REALLY understand how they are being exploited by random people who are selling them expensive, dangerous, unnecessary medications and vitamins. When they started adding up the amount they are spending on these things, they realized that they really can pay for the solar lights and water filters that we can bring them. No, it was certainly not God's will that Tiburcia would get so sick but it was God's will that all the people on this trip and all of you at home who have worked so diligently "behind the scenes" have opened your hearts to these people. While I surely don't have that crystal ball, I do believe that Tiburcia could have easily passed away had we not been here. And I do believe that because so many intelligent, insightful, faithful people have worked to hear God's call to end injustice, that things really are changing.
Now.....I have to add that as all these wonderful things were unfolding, many of the people who were key to all of it humbly continued to their work and didn't even get to experience the joy of those "ah ha" moments. As we busily had our "meetings", the patients continued to flow in. Our pediatrician, Dr. Gary Collins (also our expert on the latest developments in child health from the World Health Organization) diligently saw 8 children for every adult the rest of us can see. He sat huddled over his chair all these days listening with great compassion to the cries for help from these hopeless mothers. He spends his weeks away from here studying and finding tools that can best be used for this kind of environment. He listens so intently and gives such consideration to all the possibilities before he decides on a treatment. It is so humbling for me to watch him work.
For the last 2 years, Dr. Coral has had a dream to have a "children's health fair" where we would work on multiple issues in child health - vaccinations, growth and development charting, classes on breastfeeding and nutrition, etc. The event was spectacular and far exceeded anything she had dreamed of. BUT.....because of her diligence and insistence on ALWAYS doing what needs to be done, she continued seeing the onslaught of patients and didn't even get to experience all that she had worked so hard for. As the sun started to set last night, and I had the joy of seeing our vision unfold, 20 more patients arrived and Coral worked her way through all of them!! OK, I made a last minute splash and did a pap smear in the dark on my Guatemalan sister, Flori!! ( the woman who came to the U.S. for treatment of cervical cancer).
And now, I have to share my sadness that my husband, Randy, couldn't be here to share in all of this. Being the intellectual one in our marriage, he sits up night after night searching for answers to the public health issues we see here. Having them all come together when he wasn't here seems so unfair. He is also one the most humble people and so I know he would be annoyed that I put this out for all to see. But it is true. While we would both love to spend more of our year here, he was kind enough to keep things going at home while I had the privilege of being here this week. He has been the quiet person behind so much of this.
Off to Pueblo Nuevo for our last day. For any of you reading this who have been so integral to what we are doing, I can't thank you enough for your love and devotion to these poorest people.
We are all thinking of Karen Cothren this week and all she did to support our efforts. We're looking for a specific project to designate in her memory.
Tiburcia is a 68 year old woman who we saw around 3 PM yesterday. She had waited all day the day before and we were so overloaded with patients that she had agreed to come back the next day. She sat quietly in the waiting area all day and by the time I saw her, she was extremely ill. She was having very high fevers and extreme difficulty breathing. With our limited equipment we realized she was going into respiratory failure.
She has 10 children and 2 of her boys left for the U.S. in mid-January. She has good reason to believe that one is dead. She has given up hope and eaten little over these weeks. Her family had brought her to a doctor who had her on many meds that were making the whole situation far worse.
Our team came together, got an IV going, drove out for IV antibiotics, got her appropriate antibiotics and inhaler treatments and between all this and a little tylenol, she was able to be carried back home safely for the evening.
Much more to tell about this story and the power of God but this too, was a day that brought us even closer to these villagers and will continue to given us many more opportunities to work to bring healing of all kinds. Thank you all for your prayers and support - we all feel it here.
The group continues to astound me with their loving hearts and incredible capabilities and innate resources.
A photo of the adult ed class getting started. See 65 year old Jose, the community leader up in front and center! Read more below!
Here's a photo of just one more miracle in the Peten! Yes, we met Daniel a few months ago after he had been paraplegic for over a year and then had developed a huge decubitus ulcer through his rectum requiring a colostomy. Always smiling, never whining, his peaceful, loving demeanor wouldn't leave my mind. Ismael often reminded me of his needs throughout the months and I tried "everything" to find a solution. Then, God sent Dr. Dave! Dave just doesn't accept "can't be done" as an answer. So now, after just 1 day of the wound vac that Dave worked hard to get for him, Daniel is almost cured. The sight at his bedside last night was quite a seen. Picture this extremely poor home with extended family all around and a comical looking group of gringos! There were Coral and I battling it out to see who could debribe more of his wound! Colleen was using all her years of nursing skills to make this system work and Dave is just standing by watching the miracle unfold. Mind you, at 6'9", he's not easy to miss! His son, Ryan was dutifully holding the light, asking great questions. We talked at our meeting last night about the miracle of all these people getting together to make something wonderful happen. I was reminded of a sermon that Julian gave a few weeks ago about "God's will". Was it God's "will" that this beautiful boy would become paralyzed by a drunk driver?? Of course not!!! But it is surely God's will that the people who say they are His followers would come together to make this situation right. I said at the meeting that as medical people, you couldn't pay a group enough to come out to a home after a full day's work in the U.S. to do such a thing. Why do we do it here? For me, it's so easy here. Sensing God's presence is so palpable. Is it just that we take the time here to really look for it? And it is so joyous....all of us coming together to make something right all in the name of the love which is God. Why don't we do it every day at home?
So much more to tell. The students have been inspiring. The after-school adult education program is beyond my capacity to describe in the 5 minutes I'm allotted here! I can only say that after many, many trips, this is one where I am finally seeing not just hope, but victory.
I had a long chat with a comedrona (midwife) here yesterday. Her descriptions of their ways of helping in childbirth seem as though they are from another era. Yet, they are far more in line with nature and with good resutls than are ours at home. It's just that SOME of the time, there has to be a trained doctor available or women will die. So now we're working on our new motto!! Ten for Peten!! We need 10 mini-hospitals to deliver babies so these tragic deaths stop happening. Yesterday, this beautiful 63 year old woman told me that her daughter died in childbirth from hemorrhage. Then this woman took her baby grandson as her own and breastfed him for 2 years. He is now an amazing young man named Mario who looks to be the leader that we need in this community. Again, did God intend his mother to die? Of course not. But did this woman have to give all her life and love to him? Yes, if we want to live the life we need to live. So because of her love, I believe that Mario will be an answer we have been looking for to bring great healing to this community.
Thank you to my husband, Randy, for years of encouragement and study which have inspired the sanitation and water projects that are finally coming to fruition!
Thank you to Dr. Gary and Dr. Coral for believing in this and in their unending commitment to also never saying "this can't be done."
Thank you to all you families who have raised the most amazing, kind, inspiring students who are a blessing beyond belief to us this week. I only pray that they will bring back what they see here and lead their generation to making it the just world that it was intended to be.
Today, we look forward to the soccer game of the century!!! Truly, there are 2 nationally recognized Guatemalan soccer players coming to join Mario and our own Andy Riemer in a competition that would rival the World Cup!!
So much to think about.....more pictures tonight!
Blessings to you all!
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With all the great intentions of writing last night, the hotel "turned off" the computer system at bedtime - alas!
So a quick update before the group starts talking about me!
Yes the bags all came. The clinic is running "smoothly" (what a laugh!!). The child health week has been an amazing testimony to the efforts of Gary Collins and Coral Matus
The stories we hear never stop humbling, confusing and inspiring us.
Just one quick one ....a beautiful 21 year girl came in from a neighboring town. She is the "director" of garden program in her town. With beautiful eyes, a tranquil face and infectious smile, it's hard to imagine she'd have a bad day. Then her story unfolded. Last year, she became pregnant and her boyfriend quickly left her. When she was 7 months pregnant, she had a fairly uneventful "fall". (People fall here all the time for numerous reasons). Anyway, her baby was born 6 weeks later at the hospital. Some of the women who are the most conscientious and caring of their children go to the hospital because they think it's the safest thing to do.
Well....as usual, when her perfectly healthy baby was born, the doctor separated her from the boy. They were too busy so they didn't reunite her with the baby for most of the day and they fed the baby milk (not formula). Needless to say, they continued encouraging her to give the baby powdered milk so that by the time she got home, her milk never came in. So what options are left???? Powdered milk with filthy water and sugar with filthy water. Long story short....the baby was dead within a week. But the saddest part was that she was told and continued to believe that the baby died because she fell when she was pregnant!! Her tears flowed as she described her guilt to us.
These stories go on all day.
We spent 2 hours last night at the home of "Daniel" , the boy with the huge decubitus ulcer in his anus. We assembled the wound vac and with the Now he has a chance for survival. A huge THANK YOU to Dr. Dave Mallory for his unrelenting efforts in not accepting the concept that somethings just can't be done.
My daughter, Laura, sent me a quote today from George Bernard Shaw. "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."
Let's pray then that we can all be unreasonable!
As we drove back this evening from Pueblo Nuevo, we all looked at each other incredulously! Somehow life in the U.S. is just never like this.
All started this morning at 6AM when we were at the airport in Guatemala City getting ready to board the TACA flight. One of the women working there asked for me. She said they were having a problem since there were so many of us and we had so many suitcases that it was too much weight for the plane. She wondered if it would be a big problem if 2 or 3 of the suitcases stayed behind and came later this evening. Trying to be an example of Christian patience, I said "no problem". But I wondered since we've had far larger groups than this in the past.
Well.........when we arrived in Flores, turned out that almost none of the bags came! My emotions waxed between anger, impatience, despair. We had everything in those bags! Weeks of planning, personal stuff, very valuable things, a "wound vac" that was loaned to us from a company that might save the life of a boy we've known down here, all our equipment for the water purification program, medical equipment, on and on. I'm still praying it will all arrive tonight but even so....we had especially not scheduled the clinic today so that we could actually be "organized" for once! It was weird because I had been reading this book called "The Blue Sweater" on the plane. There was passage in it about when you have everything, you start to think that material things are the most important but when you lose everything, you realize that it is ONLY the things that you have built inside that matter. Funny, because when I was reading that, I was smugly thinking that even if I lost my house and all my possessions, it really wouldn't matter. But here I am potentially losing the things that really matter to me and I realize my faith is not as strong as I'd like to believe!
So the negative emotions were short-lived because Ismael and Orfe were there to greet us and there aren't too many people in the world who make me so happy! They were both disgusted with this usual state of affairs in Guatemala but as with everything here, you just resign yourself to the realities.
It quickly gave me an opportunity to demonstrate to the group the kind of obstacles that we're up against here. All our best laid plans nearly always turn out so much different. But knowing that those changed plans usually mean far greater things, we moved along.
We decided that the group that was going to go to Tikal on Friday would go today instead so we could just have the clinic an extra day later in the week.
Then, Deena, Coral, Gary, Colleen, Ismael, Orfe and myself went off to Pueblo Nuevo. A couple of weeks ago we had heard the incredibly wonderful news that the community had chosen a group of leaders to form a committee to try to take control of the abysmal state of the education system there. Since they knew we were coming this week, they chose today to let the teachers know that they had formed and that they were going to insists on changes. Their meeting went on for about 2 hours and then this group met with us. It was such a time of inspiration!! It brought together so many of the things that we've been working so hard for for so many years. I was so glad that we had previously studied many books about education in Guatemala in general and about what works and doesn't work in these corrupt and desperate countries.
We talked for about 2 hours - ideas were spinning and these leaders seemed so encouraged. I told them that in 5 years, if their system was greatly improved, it would only be because they had taken the leadership to make changes. We laid out the whole situation the way we saw it and helped them to create a vision of what they want. They were so enthusiastic. It was unanimous that they do not want us to support the government school in any way and that the idea of a community center with after-school enrichment for the children is the answer. Ideas went back and forth about how this can be sustainable. They chatted about who in the community could lead the way on this and how the entire community will help. Too many ideas to cover here but the issues went from microfinance, to sustainability, to a need for a change from corruption to the great goodness of God who only wants us to seek Him.
They are going to have lots of meetings this week and will meet with us again on Friday with some realistic short and long term proposals. Deena did such a wonderful job inspiring them and keeping everyone on board with what was being said.
Driving back, we stopped at the home of "Blanca". She is a beautiful, young teacher who teaches first grade in San Benito. Sr. Pam had met her several years ago and had hoped that we could meet with her in the hopes that maybe she could somehow join our efforts. She was so charming and gracious. She has recently been married so didn't seem too interested in traveling anywhere else but is totally willing to help train any teachers that might need help. But then, the craziest thing happened! As we were sitting on her couch, we could hear a young man calling in from outside. Deena and I looked out the window and said "Is that Eduardo!!!!!" Sure enough, there he was selling his soups. (Eduardo is the boy we brought to the U.S 3 years ago to have his brain tumor removed.) Talk about shock!! We ran out and hugged. He started crying! I had just talked with Carol Doerffler last week about my hopes of seeing him on this trip. But we always seem to be so busy that we never find the time. And there he was!! He looked awesome! He was wearing the same pair of glasses we had bought him and said that his vision has remained as good as it was after the surgery and he still works and has a lovely girlfriend!! He cried and said to send his love to Pastor Paul and Carol and Dr. Zakeri!! The whole thing was surreal!
The Tikal group should be back shortly. We're off to dinner and then to the airport to hopefully get the suitcases. If they're not there, I'll just have to remember all the people in the world who lose far more than this. People have worked harder than us and lost everything. But hopefully, that won't be the case.
Oh....we saw Iris, Manuel, Marcus and Victoria last night. What beautiful children! Iris and Marcus are coming in the morning to work with us for the rest of the week. We're so happy for that.
Hope you're all well and we miss you mucho!!
Anne et al.....