On the ground with GMRP
Guatemala – They waited in the relative shade of the concrete school wall while the glaring sun sent the temperature of Oliveros soaring into the high 90’s.
They were not alone, this tiny family of three — a petite mother and her two children. People from neighboring communities joined them to swarm the gates outside of Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Aldea Oliveros, the public grade school of Oliveros, Guatemala.
Vendors offering fresh tortillas and iced treats catered to a steady crowd of villagers who walked, biked, motorcycled and drove to the annual Guatemala Medical Resources Partnership clinic, sponsored by several Wisconsin Rotary Clubs, including the Thiensville-Mequon, Mequon Thiensville Sunrise, Two Rivers, West Allis and Downtown Racine Rotary Clubs.
For 10 years, the Rotary clubs and volunteer medical professionals have brought the weeklong clinic to this farming community. Dental chairs, examining tables, pharmacy shelves and other equipment stay locked in a semitrailer parked at a nearby ranch, where owner Enrique Gándara hosts the visitors during the clinic. An advanced team sets up the makeshift clinic in the Oliveros grade school.
On the first day, more than 350 patients come through the gates looking for general medical examinations and treatment, dental care and vision help. Many wait all day to be seen, and about half will return two or more days to get all of the care they are seeking.
Oliveros does have a small clinic. The problem is that it currently has no doctor. It’s the same all around the Guatemala countryside in Mayan villages and cities. There is not a large enough mass of people to sustain a medical professional in the region. As a result, the majority of the population depends on teams like the GMRP to make a visit and care for the sick.
This group has two doctors and three physician assistants, four dentists and three optical volunteers who will examine, treat and refer more than 750 people during the five-day clinic. All agree it is an imperfect system. Elderly patients who struggle to walk or maneuver archaic wheelchairs down the dirt and rubble street slowly find their way to the clinic, as do young mothers with newborn babies and everyone in between.
Dr. Eugene Tipler has made this his fourth clinic mission. Ask the physician from Chilton, WI what ailed the majority of his patients and you would be surprised. You might expect chronic problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Instead, the majority of patients have gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining caused by bad food or water or a virus. Or, they have acid reflux and headaches caused by heat exhaustion and the general stress of their lives.
Judy Sperling-Newton, of South Carolina, has been an interpreter for the medical team for most of the 10 years.
“They lead such stressful lives,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how you feel, you have to go to the field and work in the hot sun to provide for your family.”
The vision team sees dozens of patients, many whose first request is for sunglasses to protect them from the harsh sun.
A curious gaggle of children stand on the worn seats of school desks lining the exterior wall of a classroom. They teeter on tip-toe peering through barred windows at the line of dental chairs inside, fascinated by the buzzing of drills and the hum of the compressor fueling the equipment.
Dental needs top the list here, where people call everything, “agua.” Agua Coke, Agua Fanta. Sweetened soda and water is interchangeable to them, and the lack of their nutritional knowledge is destroying their teeth. The dental team works away in a sweltering room, made hotter by their dental lamps and equipment. Patients will come for multiple days to get all the necessary work done in their mouths.
Then, there are patients like our tiny family — Yolanda, Katerine and Joshua.
Volunteer German Ibaceta, an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, comes to the triage area. He shakes his head and confides with his fellow volunteers that life has been hard on this family, and is about to get worse.
Yolanda, a widow for eight of her relatively young 37 years, has a very hard tumor bigger than the gourds that hang from the nearby trees.
“It is likely uterine cancer,” he says, adding that it is also likely terminal, according to the initial assessment of the doctor who treated her. What’s more, her 10-year-old daughter Katerine has an aortic stenosis, a defect in a heart valve that will probably require surgery as well.
That is the next hurdle for the team at the end of the clinic, getting their patients the extended and follow-up care they need after the team leaves the area.
They tear down their temporary examining rooms, repack the trailer and head two-and-a-half hours north into the mountains and La Antigua, where patients who need more complicated treatment and surgery must find it. Sixty-nine of the patients will need to make the journey there for the help they need.