Sunday, November 30, 2014

Guatemalan Dream Team

That’s the number of highly motivating, selfless professionals and lay people that came together for one week to serve the people in five Guatemalan towns.  Our “dream team” this year was almost double our usual size.
It also had a beautiful international flavor with members from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia and Canada.  Our team consisted of chiropractors, medical physicians, vision, dentists, a physical therapist, an acupuncturist, nurses, a deacon, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, translators and other lay non-medical personnel.  With our broad skill sets and large group and help from many generous Guatemalans volunteers, we were able to treat about 4,000 people!  Más o menos…(more or less). 
Our team is organized, caring and most importantly…effective.  We are a family. 
We have also grown since our humble beginnings.  I was fortunate to be involved with the second mission team serving in Mexico.  It consisted of twelve members.  I am happy to report that 2014 is our 20th anniversary as a medical mission team or brigade as some call us.
The name has changed a few times since our inception as the brain child of Bishop John McCarthy of Austin, Texas.  Currently and officially we are St. Frances Medical Mission.
This year proved to be a very gratifying mission in so many ways serving the people of San Andres Osuna, El Rodeo, San Vicente, Chapernas and Guanagazapa.
Exhausted, happy, sad, exhilarated, fortunate, honored, humbled, encouraged and thankful, are some of the words that express our missionaries’ feelings during and after our trips.
This, our team’s third trip to Guatemala, proved very interesting.  Two towns were new to us, others we had served in the past.  It was exciting for me to see and treat many people I had on previous trips.  When one young girl in San Andres Osuna with cerebral palsy saw me, she immediately smiled a huge smile, awkwardly elevated her arms and allowed me to give her a big hug.  She couldn’t speak, but made sounds of joy having recognized me.  I was equally thrilled to see her.  It was a heartwarming experience.
In Guanagazapa I had similar experiences.  Upon arriving at the building that would serve as our clinic, I noticed the first man in line colorfully dressed in his red and white striped pants.  He was a Mam Indian that I had treated two years prior.  Throughout that day, I encountered more old patients.  Remembering them and them remembering me was especially gratifying.  Some remarked how much better I had made them feel and some admitted to not doing the exercises I had taught them.  They seem to suffer from the same memory problems as my patients at home.  More proof that people are the same regardless of where you are in the world. 
I have the odd privilege of patients not following my recommendations in numerous countries!
Oh well, what can a poor chiropractor do?
Each mission trip is unique and brings with it its own set of frustrations, joys and sadnesses.  Certainly one of the joys of this trip was treating previous patients.  To see their happiness and enthusiasm when they recognized us and knowing it brought them pleasure having our team return to their town was gratifying and joyful for me.
As usual, we encountered people who endured the hardships of walking many hours seeking our health care.  Six hours was the longest time I personally heard of someone walking, but likely there were others who may have travelled further.  That’s nowhere close to the record of a two day walk in Honduras, but still I wouldn’t walk six hours to have my tooth pulled.  Would you?
Just as high as the exhilaration can take you, the lows can be devastatingly low.  An emotional roller coaster ride of highs and lows is what most of us experience during the trip with after effects lingering well beyond our return home.  The joy, however, always outweighs the pain and a real sense that something good was accomplished always remains within us.
Part of this year’s sadness was the loss of a good friend, and one of the organizers of our Guatemalan mission.    Erick Morales passed away suddenly just a few weeks prior to our arrival.  He will surely be missed.  He was loved by many. 
At the end of a long hard day after putting in several hard days already, Dr. Steve, one of our physicians took his last patient, a young boy.  The boy, about 8 years old had a large infected cyst on his abdomen that needed to be removed.  We were working in a large community hall built from cinder blocks and a metal roof.  This type of building becomes very loud when filled with people.  It was very hot and humid this day, much like a typical summer day in Houston, Texas.
Partitioned clinic rooms for the doctors to see patients are made, as they often are from sheets hung on lines. My clinic area was close to an open dental area which is where Steve brought this young patient.  The dentists were using old dental chairs transported in for their use, and this became a perfect surgical site for Steve.  I had just finished treating a patient when I could see some commotion and several team members trying to assist Dr. Steve who was hunched over this young boy.  The scene was somewhat reminiscent of what you’d see on a M*A*S*H episode…commotion, instruments, syringes, gauze, blood and lots of people.  It was a less than calm setting with the commotion and a screaming, scared boy.  I approached Steve to see what he was working on and offer my assistance.  At that moment, he was making an incision into this boy’s belly.  Blood was flowing, gauze was mopping up the blood, syringes being filled with medication, the best help I could offer Steve was to hand him clean gauze and to wipe the sweat from his face.  Dr. Steve asked me to hold his glasses tightly on his head to keep them from continually sliding off his face from sweat.  
As he bent over the boy, performing this impromptu surgery, I became Steve’s human eyeglass holder.  The boy was crying and screaming as nurses held him down and as still as possible.  Dr. Steve caressed his head talking to him in a calm and soothing voice assuring him that all was okay.  I’m sure he was screaming more from fear than pain.  The poor boy’s screams echoed throughout the huge building well above all the other noise.
I don’t want to exaggerate my role in this surgical procedure at all.  I played a bit part in assisting a loving, talented doctor and nurses perform a delicate procedure that helped this boy tremendously.   Yes, I tore tape, handed Steve some gauze and became a human $1.50 eyeglass strap… but for that short moment in time, it was necessary.  It felt good to be of assistance. The boy, of course, calmed down…the drugs helped.  He was patched up and sent off for follow up care.  I am confident he was fine.  The surgery was a success!  And now I can add surgical assistant to my resume.  This will look good next to my dentist credentials, since I’ve pulled a tooth in Honduras before!
Besides all the other patients that Dr. Steve helped over the many days we spent in Guatemala, I am convinced that the purpose for him to be in Guatemala, in that town, was for that one boy.
In my opinion, if Dr. Steve hadn’t treated any other patients, it would have been okay. It was that particular boy, on that day, at that moment that he was sent to minister to.  I think that’s true for all of the team in a variety of ways. 
We’ve all experienced some moment of divine awareness…a message delivered to our heart, mind and soul highlighting our purpose and the reason to show up to do what we do.  It’s shown to us in a person, an emotion, a feeling, a shift in perception, a change in attitude, a rebuilding of human love, an alteration of consciousness that is presented to us with clarity…  Some people call this an Ah Ha moment.  A defining “thing” that’s intangible but real for each one of us.
We are brought to that moment in time for a reason and it’s not just for physical healing.  The locals were brought to help us in that moment too for our own growth and our combined salvation.  We are brought together to give and receive love that saves us in some way.
If we are listening, if we are paying attention, if we are in the moment and receptive to it; God is talking to us.  God is teaching us.  God is embracing us…maybe even testing us.
I have experienced these people, these shifts, and these moments on missions before.  There seems to be something unique about a mission setting. Of course, they happen throughout our lives too, not just in a mission setting.  We just need to be open to them, watching and paying attention.  It is a tightened down, concentrated, moment of compressed time…in which, miracles do happen.
I encountered a woman pushing an eleven and twelve year old boy and girl in a child buggy.  She was referred to me by another member of the mission team so that I could treat the children.  Karina and Deri couldn’t speak, nor could they walk.  They lay in the buggy contorted with contracted muscles, unusually small bodies for their age and microcephalic heads.
What could I do for them? Was the question in my mind.  Certainly there wasn’t going to be much I could do…especially with one treatment.  Maybe the best I could do was laying on of hands, and showing them love.   Luckily, my colleague, Dr. Charles Hensley, was available to treat Deri while I treated Karina.
It was an emotional experience to see these two children afflicted with conditions that trap them in their bodies and render them helpless; knowing that they live in less than ideal conditions which adds to their difficulties and burdens the family.   While lifting Karina out of the buggy to place her on my adjusting table, I was met with a big surprise.  I lifted her with ease.  Though I had no means of weighing her, I am confident she couldn’t have been more than 15 pounds!  I could have easily held here with one hand.  The mom said she lived on milk alone refusing to eat solid food.  Lack of proper nutrients and no physical exercise meant Karina had little muscle mass and fragile bones.  She felt as light as a piece of wood that had been eaten out by termites! 
Dr. Charley and I did the best we could with gentle manipulations and soft tissue mobilization.  We also counseled the mother about dietary options for them.  Thanks to the generosity of my patients, who donated significant sums of money for me to use when I felt it appropriate, and with donations from Dr. Charley and Dr. Rudy, I was able to arrange to help this girl.  Since she refused solid food and only drank milk, it was important to find a way to get the lacking nutrients in her body.  We sent our local helpers to purchase a six month’s supply of PediaSure® and a juicer.  The area has an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables, a rich source of nutrients, and the juicer will allow her to drink a liquid.
We also arranged for a baby to get medical help at a hospital who would otherwise die.  In another town, San Vicente, I treated a woman who had a mass (likely a lipoma) near her spine that needed further evaluation and removal.  I was able to pay for her to go to the hospital too.
These are just a few of many stories of people we were able to help through the power of touch, the power of love and with the financial donations from team members and my patients at home.
I could go on and on with many stories from this trip and from twenty years of mission trips, but I won’t.  It’s easy to write about the mechanics of it, but so difficult to capture the emotional and spiritual component of our mission experience.
Medical missions have been one of the best parts of my life and I pray I will be able to participate for many years to come.
Blessings and thanks to everyone who has ever supported our teams’ efforts through prayer and financial contributions to bring healthcare, love, hope and encouragement to those amongst us whom have less. Though you may not have personally been with us, you are a large part of our team.
Enjoy the many photos.
Dr. Rick Barrett
And the King will answer, "In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me."  Matthew 25:40