Saturday, March 28, 2009

what happens in Guatemala doesn't stay there

Note: I picked out a few pictures for this blog, but there are a bunch more on facebook in my album entitled "Guatemala". If you don't have facebook I can send you an invite to view the album....maybe eventually I'll put them on Picasa and put a link here.

I went to Guatemala. Again.

This time for a medical mission. It was a two-week trip, and it counted as one my clinical rotations for med school! Isn't that cool? Yes, it's cool. I wasn't thinking much about the trip until a few days before I left, so it came on kind of suddenly. One day I was lackadaisically living a life of luxury; the next I was speaking Spanish and cutting off warts in a third-world country. And it was incredibly awesome! Here are a few thoughts and descriptions from the experience; I've divided them into categories so you can read the parts that most interest you if this is too much to handle ;)

Doctorliness: For eight days we set up makeshift medical clinics in small towns in Gautemala; there were no pre-existing clinics in these locations, rather we just used whatever government building or school was available and made our own. We were about fifty people, comprising several specialties including family practice, podiatry, dentistry, dermatology, pharmacy, optometry, pediatrics, obgyn, and microbiology. Patients came in, the Spanish speakers amongst us took a brief history and sent them to one or more specialties, and then we did the best we could to diagnose and treat their problem. Despite our limitations we were able to provide treatment for nearly 4,000 patients in eight days, and several of the patients that need it are also receiving follow-up care through local doctors. For me personally it was an amazing medical experience because I saw so much, worked with several specialties, and had the freedom to try whatever I felt capable of doing. My activities included history-taking, podiatry, derm, general medicine, dentistry, and plenty of translating. The medical part of the trip was: awesome.

Spanish: I hadn't spoken Spanish regularly since 2003, and I was uncertain how much would come back to me. I got both a little excited and a little scared when I heard the the people around me speaking Spanish in the Houston airport, and on the flight down I primed my brain by reading out loud from my Spanish Book of Mormon, listening to Maná, and studying some Spanish medical terminology. I think it worked, because during most of the hour-long drive from the airport to Antigua I was talking to our native Guatemalan driver Julio, and I felt really comfortable doing it! That was the first test, and it really only got better from there. And what really surprised me was that while there were words I couldn't remember and my vocabulary was smaller than it had once been, I felt like I could speak Spanish better than ever before! And that includes during my mission. Overall I felt more fluent, smoother, and more able to speak like a native. And on top of all that, I learned a lot of Spanish medical terminology, how to talk about things like tingling, shooting and burning pains, menstruation, spleen problems, coughing up phlegm, and plantar fasciitis to name a few. :)

Visiting the Mission:
I took one weekend and went to visit friends from my mission. I had six different areas on my mission, but four of them were in the capital, pretty close to where we were staying. It took me a couple hours and three bus rides to get to my first destination, and when I got there and started walking around, it was the weirdest feeling. To think back to nine years earlier and all the things that have happened was very, very nostalgic, and that nostalgia continued for two solid days while I was visiting.

I had only notified a handful of people that I would be visiting, and all I could tell them was "sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning...", so finding people was an adventure. In that first area some highlights were:
  • Seeing Lucy and Edgar, a family we taught who was baptized after I left the area; they're thinking about going on a mission as a couple!
  • Visiting the first house I lived in, which has been remodeled and looks completely different--the lady there let me in and gave me a tour of the house even though I was a complete stranger.
  • Visiting my first cook and her family--the two little girls have grown up (they're now 15 and 9) , and the older one likes to sing in English, so she sang me "My heart will go on" from the titanic soundtrack, and it was awesome! I found out that even though she is an excellent student, the only novel she has ever read is the fifth Harry Potter book, simply because books aren't readily available. My description of public libraries made them jealous, and I may send her the rest of the series. That family is an amazing example of living life well amid trying circumstances.
  • Driving a stick-shift car that I borrowed (so I wouldn't get mugged walking around at night) through some narrow streets with lots of speed bumps.
I didn't make it out of my first area that night; I quickly found that wherever I visited I had to stay at least an hour; after all I came from 2,000 miles away and hadn't been there for six years. My cook's parents who lived down the street put me up for the night--the bed was rock-hard and the shower was ice-cold, but I wasn't complaining! :)

On Sunday I managed to visit my remaining three areas, spending about three hours in each. Each one was it's own emotional trip down memory lane. Just walking along the streets brought back such a flood of memories and feelings! There were so many experiences that I didn't remember until I saw the place that they had happened, and they didn't stop coming. I visited a few more families in those areas. Unfortunately some of the people I most wanted to see had moved away or were not home.

There were plenty of sad stories and plenty of happy stories, some of which it might have been more comfortable not to know about, but others which were pleasantly surprising. And at the end of the two days I couldn't believe how emotional, hectic, and unique those two days had been. One of the weirdest/funnest things was seeing the kids who were now about 8 years older than when I knew them! So different, and so fun to see how they had changed and matured. And as an added bonus, a family in my last area even found me a ride back to antigua so I didn't have to take the busses. :)

Lifestyle Trends:
Intriguing trends from Guatemala which may or may not continue now that I'm back:
  • Going to bed at 10 or 11, getting up at 6 or 7 every day.
  • No tv-watching at all.
  • Spending only an average of 15 minutes per day on the computer.
  • Wanting to work more, not less, even when I was sick.

Other Fun Stuff from the trip:
  1. We stayed in a convent the first four clinical days, where the nuns cooked for us. The nuns were awesome and really fun, and the food there was incredible!
  2. Speaking of food I really got back into the cultural food there and loved eating black beans, eggs, and fried plantains at every opportunity.
  3. The nuns taught me how to speak a little Kaqchikel (a Mayan dialect), and I used it to banter with them and to greet people on the streets.
  4. We hiked a volcano and get pretty close to the lava, and we didn't start hiking down until it was already dark!
  5. There was an "open mic night" at a restaurant in Antigua, and I performed three songs with the band there and played the hand drums on a couple others; two other guys in our group also performed. I'm an international star! haha...
  6. Took a tour of a coffee plantation with a few friends, which was very interesting and exceeded my expectations.
  7. Bought some avacados on the street my first day for about ten cents each and ate them with a tiny plastic spoon.
  8. I only got sick twice, for about a day each time, and didn't take any antiobiotics.
  9. I was introduced to a lot of new spanish music, thanks to a couple special friends; since returning home I've started listening to it a lot, and I love it! So many good groups I didn't know about...
Some statistics from the trip:
  • Number of cold showers I took: about 7
  • Times I went out for pupusas: 4
  • Steroid injections I gave: about 12
  • Teeth I pulled: 4
  • Matrixectomies I performed: 1
  • Patients we saw and treated: over 3,800
  • Number of pills I took for my unexpected allergy symptoms: about 17
  • Tubes of chapstick I purchased and inexplicably lost: 2
  • Times I asked Dave to borrow his chapstick: approximately 25
  • Times I got diahrea: 1
  • Hot-pads that look like chickens purchased by me and friends: 2
  • cameras I broke: 1
  • Sentences I heard beginning with "Fíjese que...": over 500
  • Number of times I sang the phrase: "Ay mujer, como haces daño...": At least 75
  • Times an older Mayan lady asked us about having friends-with-benefits: 1
  • Number of times I want to do this again: As many as possible
The Guatemala experience was an incredible one. There's so much more I could tell you, and each section in this entry could be an entry to itself. I wished I could stay longer, and it felt weird to come back. Here's some of the important stuff I learned: If you're in medicine and have a chance to go on a medical mission, do it. If you're a returned missionary and have a chance to go back and visit, Do it. And if you have an opportunity to purchase a hot pad that looks like a
chicken, Do it. :)


  1. Haha- great post. I've gotta get myself some chicken hot pads, eh?

  2. That sounds like an awesome trip! It is amazing how many people you helped. I miss having opportunities so prevalent like they were in Monterrey. I enjoyed reading about your experiences. Thanks for sharing it.