Monday, April 04, 2011
Life In Guatemala
I walked in the back door of my house at 1:30 this morning, having left ten days previously. The Friday night of week before last I caught a shuttle to LAX, destination Guatemala City. I last went on this sort of trip four years previously and it had taken a little time for me to nerve myself to do it again.
Our destination was a town in Guatemala called San Cristobal. I don't know exactly where it is, as I never saw a map. All I can tell you is that it is not the Mixco suburb of Guatemala City; it is about four and a half hours away from the airport by bus. San Cristobal is home to an actual hospital, built in a fit of generosity by the United States government in 1962 back when they were making the world safe for democracy. Sadly, most of it has stood empty as the local government has neither the money nor locally educated providers to staff it.
I loved the building as soon as we walked in; I am old enough to remember the classic 1950's sort of hospital with green walls, linoleum floors and tile, and engraved plastic placards mounted over the door to tell you where you were. (e.g., "Emergencias.") This building was exactly like that. Hello, Dr. Ben Casey!
The organization I worked with, HELPS International, emphasizes surgery on these trips. The surgeons (Plastics, ENT, OB/GYN, General) do much more good than we primary care MD's or GP's can do. If you are looking for a cause to support, I can highly recommend them. Despite the relative luxury of having an actual hospital to operate in, this was our toughest year yet - as I was told by several old hands who have been on many more trips than I have. Allow me to demonstrate.
All that said, the camaraderie among the staff was outstanding; this is why people return year after year. I shared a dorm with five other women, mostly internists and one pediatrician. We chatted every night about spouses, medicine, the day's patients and everything else you could imagine. We got laughs out of the smallest of things. For instance, in most parts of Guatemala you can't drop used toilet paper into the toilet - the plumbing can't take it. You have to throw it into the trashcan. A couple days into our stay, one of my roommates glanced at the overflowing toilet bin and commented acidly, "I see maid service didn't come today." It sounds like a small thing, but we laughed like maniacs. We slept on cots I firmly believe were designed for Satan's Army - even our inflatable air mattresses didn't really help. After a full day of work they were comfortable to start with, but by the end of the night we were tossing and turning with every muscle in our torsos protesting.
After the first rush of presurgical clearances was finished we clinicians were subject to, as one of my roommates termed it, "the bullshit parade." Duele todos in corpo soon became the last phrase any of us wanted to hear. Not to mention dolor in cabeza or back or foot pain. Our pediatrician announced one day at lunch, "I saw this lovely baby today, she was really kind of fat. Her mother told me she wasn't eating and hadn't eaten for a month. I'm looking at this Buddha baby and just said to the mother, "I don't believe you." (Not eating is apparently a favorite complaint among Guatemalan mothers.)
I came up with a haiku one day, in a haze of clinic induced fatigue: Feet hurt all the time/Headache, neck ache and back ache/Gastritis, she says
Next installment later... I have to get some sleep.
We chatted every night about spouses, medicine, the day's patients and everything else you could imagine. We got laughs out of the smallest of things. For instance, in most parts of Guatemala you can't drop used toilet paper into the toilet - the plumbing can't take it.
Great post. Can't wait to hear more!
I can't imagine not throwing dirty TP in the toilet. This whole post reminds me of the pre-employment drug test I took last week...it had pretty much all that except the dead guy and the cold garbanzo salad. :\ That being said, good on you!