BY DEACON ED PEITLER
A few among the skeptics openly voiced their thoughts by asking, “Why would we send medical personnel to Guatemala?”
Implied in the question was, “Why would Catholic Charities organize medical missions to serve the poor in places like Guatemala while the needs of the poor in South Carolina go unaddressed?” But no choice is necessary since, relying on God’s help, there are ample resources and persons willing to assist the poor wherever they might be found.
We found them on our first trip to Guatemala to explore the possibility of sending medical teams to serve the healthcare needs of the poor there.
When we arrived at San Lucas Toliman after a three-hour drive from the capital, Guatemala City, we were met by the staff of the Parroquia de San Lucas.
Father Greg Schaffer has been serving the poor at this parish church since the 1960s. In that time he has managed, with the help of supporters in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., to set up programs to help alleviate the effects of poverty in the lives of thousands of people, most of whom are of Mayan descent.
The priest labored through the 1970s and 1980s when Guate-mala was beset with civil war because of the social injustices that existed there. During that period, many of the local population were assassinated.
Father Stan Rother, a priest from Oklahoma who was working at a neighboring village, was killed in his rectory in 1981 by members of the army who suspected him of inciting insurrection.
Today, peace has returned to the rural mountain villages such as San Lucas Toliman, but the poverty remains. Four of us ventured from the Diocese of Charleston to see exactly what the needs of the people were and how we could augment the limited medical care available to them.
Accompanying me were Deirdre Mays, editor of The Catholic Miscellany, and Robert and Susan Starr.
The Starrs volunteered to come on this fact-finding mission and brought along their professional experience in nursing. Robert’s upcoming ordination to the diaconate also contributed to his willingness to be a part of this effort because of the unique call of the diaconate to serve the poor.
Much was accomplished in a few short days. After a day of touring the town and visiting the new women’s center, also being built by the parish with donated funds from back home, we were able to spend some time visiting the medical clinic run by the parish, where a single medical doctor provides physician services for more than 20,000 persons in the region.
Dr. Raphael Tun told us about the types of cases that are frequently seen at the clinic — children with scabies, worms, pneumonia, and severe diarrhea resulting in dehydration. More complicated cases must be referred to the government hospitals, however, and since they charge a fee, this can create problems for the people whose earnings average only one or two dollars a day.
San Lucas parish is fortunate to have a number of dedicated volunteers who come from various parts of the United States to offer their time.
In addition to the medical teams who make regular visits, a number of young people in their late teens and early twenties are living there and serving as volunteers. Many of them are planning to spend six months to a year in various projects sponsored by the parish, such as a reforestation effort.
It is hoped that the replanting of the native cypress forest will prevent mudslides like the ones this past year, which caused a serious loss of lives. In this region alone, more than 800 people are believed to have perished.
One full day was spent going out into the field to observe and participate in a medical clinic that was conducted by teams of doctors from Indiana, Minnesota and Stanford University in California. They were led by Dr. Paul Wise, a pediatrician who has been volunteering his time at San Lucas since he was 19.
Dr. Wise has been on the pediatric faculty of Harvard University and now is at Stanford. He offered his time and breadth of experience to answer our questions about how to take teams of medical personnel to San Lucas.
He also offered to be there for the first trip we take to help us become oriented to the culture and be able to effectively minister to the healthcare needs of the poor.
After three days, we left San Lucas changed from how we arrived. We experienced the lives of the poor who opened their modest homes to us, shared their food, and befriended strangers to their culture.
We arrived believing that we were there to help change their situation; we left knowing that this was impossible without our being changed in some important ways.
We look forward to our return when we can bring physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and any others who have an interest in making a medical mission to Guatemala.
All we can promise in exchange is that those who go will return to the diocese enriched by the experience.