Medical mission to Guatemala, a life-changing trip

BEAUFORT — Fourteen people from South Carolina visited San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, April 14-21 as part of a medical mission. It was sponsored by  the Office of Social Ministry at the Diocese of Charleston. Medical personnel and others paid their own way or solicited donations to defray the costs of airfare, meals and lodging. They brought over medical supplies, 1,000 rosaries, crayons and rosary coloring books in Spanish.

Theresa Morris, a physician’s assistant from Beaufort, kept a diary of her experience. The following is an excerpt.

What a beautiful country and what humble and gracious people we met on our journey in April 2007 to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. For a few of us this was our first medical mission so we really weren’t sure what to expect. What I didn’t expect was the fact that in my humble effort to put my faith into action, I know I received far more than I gave during that unbelievable week.

Day One — Our day of travel from Charleston to Guatemala City was uneventful. This was my first time outside of the United States.

Day Two — Sunday was our day of rest and time to sightsee. We started our day off with Mass at the parish church of San Lucas, which was a delight. The church was full and the music was wonderful.

We took a boat ride around the picturesque lake, which is surrounded by three volcanoes, and stopped at two villages where we became full blown “turistas.” We saw exquisite wood carvings and lovely hand-crafted items. The ride provided an opportunity for our group to get acquainted. Over half of us were from the same parish and we did not know one another that well, so it was a nice way to relax together.

Day Three — The day started with a presentation by Bob Hentzen, co-founder of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging. His home is in San Lucas and we were fortunate that he was between trips throughout the world on behalf of CFCA. We went to the small hospital founded and supported by the parish. It is run by one physician, Dr. Raphael Tun. It was amazing to see what he had accomplished in this community with a limited staff and  resources.

It was our first clinic day, at a small village a short ride from San Lucas. We saw 101 patients. One of the physicians and I went on a house call just across the street from the school where we had set up. That visit was the most spiritual moment for me.

Our patient was an 84-year-old woman who had not walked for 20 days. The exam quickly revealed that she had a broken hip and possible pneumonia. She chose not to go to the hospital for care, even though the translator explained that was what she needed. As I knelt by her bed and held her hand, tears welled in my eyes. I silently said a prayer for her. She looked at me and smiled and asked the translator to tell us how much she appreciated our coming to see her.

With her permission, Father Greg Schaffer went to visit her the next day. I had given him her name, but he said the villagers knew her only as  “Grandmother.” That evening, he told us how overjoyed she was to see him and to receive the sacraments. He said they laughed and prayed together.

Day Four — Clinic day two was a little less bumpy. We had met the night before to review our plans and we were ready for another village.

One member of our group stayed at the mission so she could meet the children she sponsors through CFCA. Hentzen brought them in to spend the day with her and it was a wonderful sight as we watched him introduce them amidst the hugs and smiles.

Getting to the school building where we held clinic was more challenging than the previous day. Many children met us at the top of the hill when we arrived. We had to a steep slope down the mountainside, then cross a metal foot bridge and continue down a rocky, dirt footpath a short distance until we arrived at our building.

Two lines of patients formed quickly and wrapped around both sides of the building. The children were so happy to receive their coloring books and crayons along with some rosary beads. It was really difficult to decide who did more smiling — us or our patients.

The end of the day came quickly, even though we saw 122 patients. And the climb back up the mountain wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be when we were coming down.

Day Five — Clinic day three was in a  community created by the government after the hurricane and mud slides which devastated the coast in 2005. It was a small area and we saw far fewer patients.

Day Six — Clinic day four was in a fairly remote Mayan village. Our drivers had given strict instructions that we had to leave the area before dark for our safety. Awaiting us, however, was a bright, cheerful group of smiling children and adults in colorful native dress. Mayan history and heritage was everywhere.

Again, our patients were most gracious and humble people, quiet and appreciative. At times during the week, it was hard to hold back the tears. It was a wonderful gift to have been allowed to receive, to go and serve.

Day Seven — Clinic day five was our  last . That morning I stayed behind the group to meet the folks that a friend from home and I had requested to sponsor through CFCA. God blessed me with the opportunity of meeting with the children and older women.

Later, I joined the group for clinic in a village tucked away in the hills and accessible only by a boulder strewn road. Although all areas we were in were poor, this one seemed particularly impacted by poverty. The humble, gracious and happy spirit of our patients was once again amazing to witness.

Day Eight — We returned to to the United States. What an awesome and awe inspiring week! The poverty we witnessed is difficult to describe. Many of us have seen poverty even in this country — but it is the exception. There, poverty is the rule, not the exception. Seeing how the people, especially the children, live day-to-day should stand as an example.

Even after we left, the “harvest” continued. One of our members is a prosthetist who was able to see several patients. After returning home, he created prosthetic limbs which were shipped to Guatemala and fitted by a physical therapist from another group that  arrived after we left. Our group received an e-mail recently about a woman whom our prosthetist had seen. She had taken the bus from Guatemala City at 4 a.m. to be at the clinic at San Lucas Toliman by 8:30 a.m. When she arrived they “fit her with her limb and she cried uncontrollably … and danced.”

There is much more to tell and more stories about patients we met who have touched our lives, but no words can do justice to the gifts that we received during this mission trip.

For more information about the medical mission, call Deacon Ed Peitler at Catholic Charities (843) 402-9115 ext. 15.