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My Guatemala Experience


Posted by Ethan Handler, MD (a third year Head and Neck Surgery resident from Kaiser Permanente, Oakland serving a global health elective at Hospital del la Familia in Nuevo Progreso, Guatemala.

Everyone is set to arrive at SFO at 9:00 am on 2/18/11.  Lots of first timers on this trip, myself included.  Nervous laughter mixed with elation reverberates on our naive faces.  Dr. Cruz and company pull up in the U-haul outside of our gate and we immediately go to work, an assembly line unloading 40 boxes and duffel bags full of medical supplies destined for Nuevo Progreso.  I realize this was the point for me when the entire trip first felt real; like I was actually going, not just talking about what an amazing experience it would be.  It is an invaluable experience heading for the first time, or any time for that matter, to a place, well out of my comfort zone, to apply what I have worked so hard to learn, to those people desperately in need.

We arrived in Nuevo Progreso on Saturday afternoon to be greeted by a firecracker celebration followed by the local school band dressed up and ready to rock.  Needless to say, a beautiful welcome prefaced a life changing week.

Throughout the six days we spent at the Hospital de la Familia in Nuevo Progreso, as a group we saw over 1000 patients in clinic and performed over 150 operations.  The group consisted of 5 surgical specialties including otolaryngology, ophthalmology, general surgery, plastic surgery, and ob/gyn.

On a personal level, the trip represented an incredible growing experience.  My Spanish is sparse and my medical Spanish even more clandestine.  It was through this uncomfortable place that I pushed myself to interact more diligently with patients, listen more intently, and take my time to communicate.  These things are often neglected or forgotten back in the US when clinics get behind schedule and wait times pile up.  In Nuevo Progreso, wait time took on another meaning.  Patients were so happy to be seen that waiting hours to days seemed almost expected.  Each time I entered the small clinic room with a smiling face, and subsequently leaving graciously after our time had finished.  Some would walk hours or take a half-broken down bus across the country just to have a chance to be seen in clinic and considered for an operation.  Many patients were turned away, or placed on a list for the next team arriving in May.  Having to do this came with a heavy heart, and I am not sure if those people even had the resources to make the trip back.

I look forward to my return to Guatemala.  The opportunity to work in this setting is something every physician should embrace.  It re-grounded me and served as a beautiful reminder of why I committed to medicine.  Please see the attached photographs.  The people and place are truly amazing.

The welcome band
The clinic building
The clinic line every morning for paitients waiting to be seen/evaluated.
The hospital
The nursery
The doctor now becomes the patient
The HNS team
Tonsil here we go

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