This weekend I will get on an airplane for the first time in 15 months and fly south to one of my favorite places in the world, Guatemala. I will be joined by 15 other medical professionals and people who similarly adore the people of Guatemala. This will be the tenth team I have had the honor of working with over as many years in the amazing Central American country. In 2010 I was asked by Rabbi Abie Ingber, the director of Xavier University’s Center for Interfaith Community Engagement, to be the medical director for a medical service trip. That following spring we took 12 pre-med and nursing students down to a village in the Western Highlands and helped set up a primary care clinic. After being the first physicians to ever work in that community, six years later we moved on to another village. A young man we had met from the village had returned to be their physician and in the course of the six years the community had built a clinic and trained community health workers to serve the village. The idea is to put ourselves out of business - to build healthcare capacity where before there was very little. Those first years I lived in Cincinnati where my husband taught theology at Xavier while I practiced pediatrics. We had the opportunity to move back to my home state of Colorado in 2017 around the same time Rabbi Abie retired. The Guatemala medical program wasn’t continued at Xavier with our departures, so in 2020 I took my first team of similar future health care professionals from Regis University (my alma mater) to Guatemala. We literally left Guatemala with that first group of Regis students the day before Guatemala shut down due to the pandemic in March of 2020.
The last 15 months I have slogged through navigating working as a frontline healthcare worker and worried more than just a little about our community down in Guatemala. Our new village is a special place. It is a center that was founded 17 years ago by a Guatemalan priest to serve a community of indigenous Mayans who were living off the local landfill. This is the extreme poor of Guatemala. The community, thanks to Padre Sergio’s vision, now has a school that serves more than 450 pre-k through high school students, a center to train people in job skills, a psychologist and social worker to help the community with mental health and human rights issues, and a newly formed primary health clinic with a phenomenal community health worker. This center is run by people who are committed to the heart of Catholic social teaching. We hope to accompany them over the next few years to establish their own capacity to care for the healthcare needs of this community.
Because of the pandemic, I could not take another team of Regis students this year. Every year as soon as we come back to the USA, the students universally express their desire to return to Guatemala. So last fall I thought, this would be the perfect year to have an alumni trip. So, I put the word out to the more than 100 students who have traveled to Guatemala with me over the last 10 years, and quickly formed a team of 16! We all work in healthcare, so we are all vaccinated. I am fairly certain this is the first ever joint venture of Jesuit universities of its kind. Some of them went to Guatemala on the Xavier teams and some from Regis. We have 5 RNs, 2 MDs, 1 medical student, a dentist, a pediatric PT and a 3 pre-med students. And I am thrilled that my daughter, Grace, is also coming. Grace went on one of the Xavier teams when she was 12 and for the last 5 years there is hardly a day goes by that she doesn’t ask when she can go back to Guatemala.
We are traveling at a critical time in Guatemala. To many people in the USA the pandemic seems to be over (it isn’t), but to many parts of the world it is really just beginning. Pandemics hit impoverished areas first in their belly. In places where simply feeding your family every day is hard, when the country shuts down starvation is a very real concern. Then, last fall our community was hit back to back by two very late season, severe hurricanes - both of which were attributed to climate change. These families live in tin roof, dirt floor huts, so imagine hurricane force winds and rain in such a structure. It is literally like having a river running through your home.
Viruses follow the rules of Darwin just like the rest of us - survival of the fittest. We have now had a year and a half of this coronavirus and it is a much different beast than when we started. It knows we are trying to outsmart it, so it is doing what viruses do - it is mutating to try to infect more people. The variants spread easier and are proving to be more deadly. So, right now COVID is surging in Guatemala. The current percent positivity is 26%! The vaccine efforts have been slow, with only about 4% of the population having received a first dose.
There are times in our lives where we can mark a significant event and in looking back you know that “the gentle hand of god” was involved. About two years ago in the fall when I was selling Guatemala textiles for a fundraiser after mass at Regis a woman introduced herself and told me her daughter lived in Guatemala. We got to talking and this woman, who lives just a few miles from me, is the mother of the regional director for Central America of the CDC! So, that is how I met Dr. Emily Zielinski Gutierrez. Emily lives in Guatemala City with her husband and 2 kids. We started emailing and were able to meet in person our last night in Guatemala that fateful March of 2020. We have kept in contact throughout the last year and Emily has been an invaluable resource for me and our team, keeping us informed of where things stand in Guatemala in regards to the pandemic. She was able to meet with our team via zoom this last week to give us up to date numbers - that is how I know the current percent positivity is at 26%. These kinds of meetings simply don’t happen for a reason. Emily is on leave right now, visiting her family in Colorado, so we met at mass at Regis last weekend and she gave me this little Guatemalan mother and child ornament. The little masked mother will be my talisman for this trip. I usually take a small token on each trip to stuff away in my pocket to help guard against whatever catastrophe may occur. So, Dr. Emily’s masked mama will be our guard.
We hope to do lots of things this week in Guatemala. Aside from the hundreds of pounds of medications and supplies we are bringing, we hope to be able to see peds patients, adult patients, patients needing dental care and physical therapy. There is even a chance we may be able to administer COVID vaccines, which, really would be the most critical work we could ever do in Guatemala. We will blog as we are able, please follow along to see what adventure awaits us. Lauri, Pramuk, MD