The plane flight seemed short in comparison to the windy drive through the mountains to the beautiful lakeside village of Santiago Atitlan. I read through the volunteer orientation manual that had been emailed to me before departing from San Francisco and looked forward to meeting the hospital staff. On my first day of volunteering, I strolled a quarter of a mile down the street, with a short-cut through the coffee bean plants, to the recently constructed Hospitalito Atitlan (a beautiful building that was recently erected due to mud slides that destroyed the previous Hospitalito). Morning rounds took place promptly at 7:30 am and I was introduced to local hospital staff and other international volunteers. It was amazing to see how many health professional volunteers from various cities in the US and other countries abroad had congregated in this remote village in Guatemala to help the community.
My first day was spent orienting myself to the clinic: learning how the clinic flow worked, figuring out the buttons in Spanish on the ultrasound machine, becoming re-familiar with the traditional “spatula and spray” pap smears, and trying to recall basic Spanish phrases I learned from my brief medical school Spanish class. A medical student would typically accompany me in clinic and assist with the Spanish-to-English interpretation, however often the patient and her family members only spoke the local dialect of Tz’utujil so we would patiently wait for one of the hospital staff to help us with the Spanish to Tz’utujil translation. I found the majority of the hospital staff had many roles, such as the pharmacist whose responsibilities also included assisting patients with their follow-up appointments and billing.
The second day on the job I was assigned to OB specialty clinic but a pregnant patient arrived in labor and her baby was breech by ultrasound. Most prenatal patients plan to deliver at home, but this patient was told during her prenatal care to come in to the hospital due to the unstable lie of the fetus. We consented her for a Cesarean section. The operating room was spotless. Her surgery and recovery were uncomplicated and she went home on post-op day two with her healthy baby boy.
Three weeks passed more quickly than I imagined and I learned what the true meaning of hard work is from the Guatemalan women I cared for. It was a wonderful experience learning about the beautiful culture and community that focuses on the family as a unit. I hope to return to Guatemala at some point in the future.