Hard to believe all that's happened in the last 2 days. Sunday morning we drove out to see Flori's family. As we pulled in front of her sister's home, the tears just rolled down my face. There was the porch where we had the big "fiesta" celebrating Flori's recovery just a few short months ago. It was bare and so forlorn looking. Where were the balloons, the cake, the huge plates of food and where was Flori? At that time, we had all laughed and thanked God and shared stories and hugged. How did it all end like this? One by one, her family came and we all hugged and cried and they all told me to thank each and every one of you for all that you did to try to save her life. They told me that you will all be remembered in their hearts forever and that there will be a place in heaven where we will be together one day. I told them so many stories about Flori's incredible fortitude, courage and strength in the most difficult of times.
Then, after our time together, they brought me over to the little clinic near their house. 20 women were lined up on that Sunday morning eagerly waiting for a pap smear. Everyone there and in the surrounding communities are terrified of getting this cancer. In a neighboring village is another woman age 35 with almost the same story. They had me go visit her. When she went for a routine exam a few months ago, she was told that things didn't look right. So, she was sent to Guatemala City where she had a biopsy that confirmed cervical cancer. They told her that it was too advanced for surgery and that she needed chemo and radiation. So her family has used all their resources to start her on the chemo but in reality, there is no radiation program here so she will really never get that and she will be one more statistic in a short time......
But the only good news in the midst of this is that we seem to really on a path to seeing a full scale cervical cancer prevention program here in Guatemala. it would take a book to explain how we got here but after all these years of trying and huge obstacles and trials, we have somehow made wonderful connections. Sara and I have had meetings with the director of APROFAM (Planned Parenthood of Guatemala) and with incredible women associated with Rotary International and with Isabel DeBosch's foundation. Strong connections are being made with a group through the National Institute of Health and it honestly seems that real changes are possible. Our research proposal for February seems to have ignited a flurry of possibilities and we can only pray that real change will happen. Best of all, we have found so many wonderful Guatemalan health promoters who are so eager to participate.
In the midst of all this administrative activity, we've been able to still connect with these wonderful Guatemalan women in the clinic. Their stories continue to shock us and compel us to continue moving forward. Of the 20 women we saw on Sunday morning, at least 12 told us about their children dying. The main reason for their children's death was the "eclipse" of the moon. They described to me that the doctors told them that there was an eclipse that cut off the oxygen supply to the moon. Then the sun was able to burn their babies heads and so the babies died within them. They told me this story as if you would be recounting any account of a child's death. The mythology that has been encouraged by the medical community here is shocking to me. It permits a culture where no one has to be accountable to anyone.
On a lighter note, Sara and I went out to dinner tonight. We were done around 9:30 and found out that there were no cabs available in Guatemala City so we couldn't figure out how we'd get back to the hotel. So we walked about 10 feet and mentioned to a man working in a different restaurant that we couldn't find a taxi. So he said, "no problem, I'll just drive you"! So off we went and here we are! It is indeed surreal here in Guatemala!
Today was unbelievable! We have tried so hard over the last couple of years to involve the communities in our planning - it has always been an uphill battle. Now I realize why! It's because we were involving the community leaders and they are all men!! But now I found the right women!
After we had the conference with the health promotors and midwives the other day, a few of them asked to meet again. So this morning, we had a group of about 20 from 9 different communities. They all got their by 8 AM and many had to travel at least 2 hours.
I talked to them at length about what I see in the clinics - how people want medicine to fix problems that are primarily related to poor water, horrible nutrition, poor sanitation, etc. For 3 hours, we all chatted and they were unbelievably enthusiastic to be involved in these changes. Many of them are clearly intelligent and very insightful and totally agreed with everything we were saying. We talked about making short and long term plans and they were honestly shouting out ideas and telling stories which proved the points we have been trying to make for so long. Ismael did an incredible presentation regarding the water filters and they were all signing up to buy one by the end!
We ended the "charla" with some real goals. They are going to meet with Ismael and Orfe in a couple of weeks and present goals for their communities in 6 months, 1 year and 5 years. They all agreed that the 5 year goals would be for everyone to have clean water, usable latrines, safe stoves, decent nutrition and yes, even animals out of the houses! They promised that they would start by being examples in their communities. At the end, I filmed all of them and they repeated over and over that they were so glad to have an organization that would listen to them and include them in the planning.
We also talked at length about our upcoming cervical cancer prevention program. I asked for volunteers to help us and within minutes, I had it all covered - we'll have 4 volunteers with us every week thoughout the month! They all agreed on one woman to be in charge as she is known for being organized and passionate about improving the health of the people. She's the one in the picture that I posted yesterday that is standing in front of her stove.
One funny story from today.....A 60 year old woman came in because of hearing loss. As I was getting ready to tell her that I'm a gynecologist and don't really treat hearing loss, her eyes filled with tears and she took my hands and said.."You know, I came here from El Naranjo. I've been traveling since 1 PM yesterday!! I came here because I heard that your group can cure anything! I know that God is working through your hands and I have complete faith that you'll be able to fix my problem!" Hmmmmm.......now how do you respond to that???
Somehow, between Sara and I talking to her at length and doing a few things (oh and also telling her that Dra. Coral Matus would be here next month!), she left as a happy customer.
Too many other stories to tell......Good night!
Here's some photos that we took this week. You can see the midwives/health promoters at our conference about maternal mortality and cervical cancer. The photo of Sara and Ismael is with one of the community leader/health promoters. We spent a couple of hours with her discussing how to convince all the people to start using the safe stoves and filtered water. She was full of wonderful ideas. And.....introducing "Anita Elizabeth Martinez Guerra" - the newest in our SewHope family!
Lastly, photos of the ladies of Pueblo Nuevo learning how to weave.
Is it really only day #3??? Yesterday, we attended the conference on education and technology in developing countries. We obtained so much insight and made great connections. I had the opportunity to spend 3 hours with the Guatemala City Rotary Club. What an incredible group of women who truly care about the poor and are doing so many things to make a real difference. They are so enthusiastic about our cervical cancer prevention program and are giving us full support.
Due to the holiday here, it turned out that there were no TACA tickets so Sara and I had to take the 9 hour bus ride up to Peten late last night. The bus was fine but pretty impossible to sleep so we're pretty pooped!. It was a pretty incredible day. After a quick shower after getting off the bus, we got to the conference (that we were running!) and there were at least 75-100 comedrones and health promoters there. The government health promoter had to do his presentation which went on for over an hour. At that point, they all seemed pretty bored so I had to think of something to get their attention.
So I told them that I wanted to talk about maternal mortality and about cervical cancer. But I told them that I didn't want to bore them with statistics. I wanted to tell them that these were problems that involved real families and real women. I recounted Flori's story and then I showed them the little video I made of her. There were lots of tears, and oh my gosh, the participation was phenomenol!! We talked about so many things and I think I convinced them that we can do none of this without their help. They formed a little committee to address all these issues and we're going to all meet on Saturday morning. They were so excited about the cervical cancer campaign that we're having in February. I talked to them about the need to train them in many of these areas and several came to me afterwards telling me about their dreams of helping their own people. Tomorrow, we're having the clinic in Pueblo Nuevo and of course, all the ladies were coming at the end of the conference with their heartbreaking stories that they somehow think can be fixed in a mere clinic visit.
We drove through Purusila and spent a long time with the health promoter there. It was a very, very informative time - she had all kinds of insightful, wonderful ideas. Then we stopped at the school where they were having a telesecondaria class - that was also incredibly informative. Everytime we come, I feel closer and closer to these communities. The women are so welcoming and compared to how it was 4 years ago, they are now like family.
They ask for many of you who have been here. Each of you have made permanent indentations on their hearts. Sara and I just had a wonderful dinner - it's so great to have a young person along with so many insights and such a clear wish to mend this broken world. We both talked about how easy it is to just be ourselves here and to feel God close. Not sure why it's more difficult at home!
With each trip comes new insights, new challenges, new longings for answers as to how best to tackle these huge problems in meaningful ways. This past week was one of the most bittersweet we have experienced. I still have not accepted that Flori is gone. I knew from the moment that I met her that her chances for longterm survival were negligible but so many miracles happened along the way, that I somehow believed that she would beat all the odds; that she would be with her children and with us for many years. I imagined her joining us on our "jornadas" testifying to her story. I pictured her fighting with us as we try to convince the "powers" with authority and resources to ensure a meaningful cervical cancer prevention program here. We had plans to bring my mom and her and her family for a long dreamed of vacation to Antigua. Now, we have not only lost her but we see that her 2 small children will have to endure a childhood without a mother.
And then, just 2 days later, we learned that Orfelinda and Ismael were blessed with their beautiful baby "Anita". With a healthy delivery and the most loving family you could find, this baby is starting a life that is truly blessed. Their older son, Jessi, is now in Toledo studying at St. John's High School. His progress in just 4 months has been incredible. He has totally became part of the Thaman family who so lovingly took him in as their own while he is in school.
So, here we are for 10 days hoping to do all we can to set in motion some programs that might actually make truly meaningful differences for the people of the Peten. There is so much corruption, inertia, lack of resources, lack of will here. The longer we do this, the more we realize the depth of the obstacles. On the plane ride, I was reading a book recommended by a friend. It talks a lot about the reality of evil and how our understanding of it can only be approached and never really achieved. We can neither comprehend nor control it. But, as J.R.R. Tolkien said "It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."
So.....Sara and I spent the day making connections, spreading the message of Flori and doing all we could to ensure that our hopes for a comprehensive cervical cancer program in the Peten will one day be a reality.
We translated our project proposal this morning so we were able to distribute it to those we met with. We spent the morning with Dr Contreras from APROFAM (the Planned Parenthood) of Guatemala. She seemed incredibly interested and totally agreed with our approach. She promises to do all she can to make the February trip a great success. We then traveled to Antigua to meet with the executive director of WINGS, Guatemala. They are involved in one aspect of cervical cancer prevention and could potentially be great partners. Finally, we spent several hours with Isabel DeBosch and her daughter who are intimately involved with Rotary International here in Guatemala. They are keenly interested in this program and together, I believe we can make this a reality.
Tomorrow, we will be attending a conference about technology and education in developing countries. We'll also be meeting with the Rotary International group and with the woman from US AID. Then we're headed up to Peten in the evening. On Thursday, we'll be giving a presentation about maternal mortality to a group of 75 midwives in Santa Ana.
Seems like there are so many doors opening and I can only pray that this work will ultimately lead to less suffering in this beautiful country.