Local Doc Volunteers On Medical Mission To Central America
Just as the national debate on healthcare heats up in this country, a local physician recently had the opportunity to see how healthcare works in Guatemala - a system that isn't broken because there really is no established system; a system that has national healthcare that is free, but the people who need it the most don't have the transportation to the cities to even be able to access it. And even though the care is free, prescriptions are not free to the patients who have no money to pay for them.
Dr. Sharon Martin, an internal medicine practitioner in Mc- Connellsburg, and chief of staff at Fulton County Medical Center, spent 10 days in June on a medical missionary trip to Guatemala as part of The National Organization DOCARE (pronounced DO-CARE), founded in the 1960s by an osteopathic physician, having medical missions across the country and the world.
Twice a year, faculty and medical students from osteopathic colleges go to provide care in clinics in the Highlands of Guatemala. The population served is the indigenous Mayan people.
Dr. Martin joined more than 30 medical students, 20 support volunteers and seven physicians to provide supplies to the underserved area. While there, she traveled to three clinics and the group saw approximately 400 people daily. The Fulton County medical staff donated $1,000 of vitamins for the clinics.
In Guatemala, a Central American country roughly the size of Tennessee, with a population of just over 14 million, the doctors and students provided medicine and medical care to the Mayan descendants who reside in the volcanic mountainous terrain near the city of Antigua in south central Guatemala. Guatemala is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean, on the southeast by El Salvador and the Honduras, and on the northeast by Belize and the Caribbean.
Although Antigua is a growing tourist destination, the areas surrounding the city remain steeped in poverty with an annual income of less than $5,000, earned predominantly from growing vegetables that are then taken to market in the cities. The women are also skilled at hand-weaving cotton, wool and some silk, and they also sell their crafts at market.
According to Dr. Martin, people in the mountains visited by the medical group live in huts and cook over open fires often in the huts. There are no stoves or refrigerators and open-flame cooking is the only option.
While there, Dr. Martin supervised medical students and because she is fluent in Spanish also did translating for the group. Although Spanish is the country's official language, there are also at least three indigenous languages in the area she visited. She told the "News" that while they saw a broad range of diseases, they predominantly saw children and adults with worms, malnutrition, diabetes and hypertension. She said that because they cook over open flames indoors in huts with dirt floors, many of them suffer from chronic asthma and chest congestion.
Because the women carry most items using a strap on their head and wash their clothing on a washboard, they also suffer from muscular-skeletal stress and are often in pain. "Just giving someone a Tylenol is like giving them gold," she said.
Dr. Martin said the medical group took a supply of vitamins and Tylenol with them and noted that most of their patients were vitamin D deficient. In addition to seeing cases of rickets, she also saw a patient with tuberculosis.
Martin noted that while healthcare is free at hospitals and clinics in the larger villages and cities, patients often cannot get transportation to the facilities. Those needing transportation can ride the "chicken buses," which are crowded and dirty, but they must pay the fare. Once they do see doctors at the clinics or hospitals, they must then pay for prescriptions they cannot afford. Because the roads are unpaved dirt, it takes at least 1 1/2 hours to get to a hospital.
Their diet consists mostly of vegetables, chicken, rice and tortillas they make out of ground corn. Because they get their water from the rivers, they have to be reminded to boil it before using it, Martin said.
Dr. Martin, who had previously visited Honduras, said the climate in the mountainous areas is "delightful" with a daytime high of 80 degrees and temperatures falling to 55 degrees at night. The land is "lush," she said. "They call it the land of eternal spring."
She summed up her experience by saying, "I was truly amazed by the humanity of the medical students on the trip - their caring and their compassion." She added, "I was also touched by the gratitude and generosity of the town elders and how they never missed an opportunity to thank us."
"The people have no expectations, but are very spiritual, close to their families and in tune with nature," she said. She said for herself, the personal reward was the energy she could feel in the work they were doing. "It isn't just what you give, but also what you get back - the energy of God is the only way I can describe it," she said. She also said she appreciated the opportunity to practice medicine the old-fashioned way with no forms to fill out and no insurance companies to negotiate with.
And while the United States debate on healthcare rages on in town meetings and in the media, at least one group of medical caregivers came eye to eye with people who truly understand what it means to be without healthcare and who appreciate every vitamin they are given.