Nurse moved by suffering, hardship on medical mission to Guatemala

By Siena Picchi-Dobson, RN, Providence St. Mary Medical Center

The fog rose above the lush mountain jungle. Day broke with calling birds and cool fresh air. We were on another bumpy and treacherous bus ride up to the Guatemalan mountain village for a clinic. The drop-off was shear and the road was too narrow for more than one direction of traffic. I just prayed another vehicle was not rushing toward us in the other direction.

I had traveled here as part of Providence Health International. PHI has a continued commitment to improving health in Guatemala. PHI partners with another organization, Faith in Practice, to send health care teams to deliver care including surgical and village teams. On April 1-9, 2016, our village team went to a remote mountainous area in Guatemala near a town named Chicaman to do village clinics for four intense days.

We all came from different hospitals of Providence. Our team of 30 consisted of dentists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and translators. Some were Guatemala volunteer veterans. But for many of us, including me, this was the first time.

We worked with local volunteers from Faith in Practice as well as Medical Teams International to provide medical care and dentistry. This care was much needed as many of the people we served had never seen a doctor before. They live in remote mountain villages, with either no access to care and/or lacking the financial means to get medical care. On this trip I truly got to be a part of the heart of the Providence Mission of revealing God’s love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable through our compassionate service.

We were able to see 1,760 patients in four short and intense days. On this trip I faced human suffering in a way I had not done before. I had visited developing countries before, and seen poverty, but somehow in the past few years, busy with starting my journey to a nursing career I had pushed it to the back of my mind.

The 30-year civil war has left Guatemalans impoverished and demoralized. I will never forget the faces of the people I saw, proud indigenous women in brightly colored clothing who had been dealt a tough life. Men who had lives of hard labor. Their faces shone from a life outdoors working the land. Their knees and shoulders were worn out from hoes and wielding machetes. Many people had suffered falls from accidents on the steep mountainsides, and other accidents such as falling out of motor vehicles. I remember one woman who had fallen going after a 27-year-old man who had tumbled out of the back of a truck. (That’s how people travel up and down the roads, packed into the back of a pick-up with safety rails around the back. She wanted to see whether he had survived, which he probably hadn’t, and then she fell.) There were also ailments we see in the U.S. such as cancer, diabetesand heart problems.

I was deeply moved as I served in the clinics translating for a nurse practitioner. As I was listening to others, I got to know them as individuals. There was a meeting point where there was no separation, and I was thinking about their lives and what they go through, what it would be like to be in their position, praying for them, and treating them the way we’d like to be treated. These are some ways the experience translates into personal responsibility in our integrated world.

This direct face to face experience was so visceral and so real. It hit me in the gut. After I left my day at the clinic and was back at the hotel, I found myself begging for forgiveness on behalf of the U.S. for the role we played in Guatemalan atrocities. Only then did I feel a little better. Serving in the clinics took me out of my comfort zone, and I was face-to-face with the hurts and pains the indigenous people have suffered generation after generation, since the Spanish conquest, continuing to this day.

I found myself having righteous indignation: it’s not okay for some of us to be comfortable and with plenty, while others are completely lacking. I became aware of how sheltered we are in the U.S. from suffering around the world.

I left Guatemala with recognition of the plenty and privilege I enjoy in the U.S. and more aware of consumer choices such as fair trade versus factory manufacturing and how people are affected by the making of products. I am also more sensitive to immigrants in our own community. While we were in Guatemala, we depended on Spanish translators and got to experience what it is like to be in the position of not speaking the language. This made me more sensitive to people for whom English is not their native language.

This experience also altered my understanding of Latin American immigrants’ motivations, hopes and dreams when they come to the U.S. For example, I got to see the other side of the story: mothers whose sons had gone to make money in the U.S. The mothers didn’t care about the money. They just wanted to see their sons, and nothing could be more important to them than simply having their sons with them. Also Guatemalans have a beautiful culture and society, and their own unique values.

We tend to think the U.S. is so great and that everyone wants to be here and be like us, but that is just not true. People are usually driven by economic forces that are beyond their control. They are left with difficult choices they often do not want to make.

I would like others to know how deeply touching this experience was, and how it wasn’t about me: how much the indigenous people suffer, and what the huge need are, and a lot of the current problems are because of foreign policies carried out by the United States. I left Guatemala inspired by the Guatemalans’ wisdom, the value of community and their strength, despite the brokenness. I was also inspired by the amazing potential for healing and wholeness.

There was amazing beauty and culture in the people, incredible hard work, faith and love. The pain I saw was unsettling and disconcerting, I prayed for restoration. I was grateful to be a part of restoration. I found comfort from a passage in Isaiah, 58:12 “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

I was somewhat tired from the long physical and emotional journey but I had a fuller heart, changed forever from the experience. Hopefully in the short amount of time of clinics we were able to touch lives at least as much as they have touched ours. I was grateful for the privilege to have been invited into the local communities, to heal but also to be healed by witnessing true courage, compassion and humanity in its purest form.