Medical Brigade to Puruhla Guatemala

I got back late Friday night, (or was it early Saturday morning?) from a week long medical brigade in Guatemala. I traveled with MedWish International and 41 other adventurous brigadiers I now claim forever as friends. There was very limited communication and no access to Internet so real time updates were not possible….though honestly I think I would have been too tired to blog anyway. Our days were LONG….no I mean LOOOOONG-AH. Plus between the Malarone and the motion sickness I was pretty much a hot mess the whole time I was there.

I’m still exhausted but since you are here Ill try to catch you up…

Our base of operations was a small town called Puruhla about a 4 hour drive from Guatemala City. We stayed at Rom Tzul, a “resort hotel” that felt more like a bad summer camping cabin. We did have running water and flush toilets (well most of us did) but the luxury pretty much ended there. On the subject of our accommodations I will simply say this…

  • While not easy, five women (three of whom **yeah I’m counted in there** are total diva princesses) can in fact share a room and a single bathroom. (Also contrary to popular beliefs, mud masks, clarisonic facials and hydrating facial sprays are not incompatible with camping cabin life…I mean there’s no need to be uncivilized.)
  • Black moths as big as bats dive bombing onto your forehead at 1 am will elicit screams. Also hunting and capturing said moth with a bath towel will add squimish giggles to the screams.
  • Even big black moths on your face aren’t as bad as waking up to a roach crawling in your bra (not me, thank gawd).
  • Ice cold showers suck no matter how much you sweat your ass off in the afternoon.
  • Apparently when you are tired enough you can sleep anywhere….just pull the blanket over your head so the moths don’t lay eggs in your ears.

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Each day we traveled two to three hours one way from our base camp across rugged mountainous terrain to the Mayan villages we served. In some cases we could only reach our clinic sites by 4×4 caravan.

There was lots of motion sickness, a few hairy moments as we slipped and slid our way down the narrow dirt roads and when we were lucky enough to ride in the back of the pick up trucks some pretty bruised tushies. But that’s what it took to reach the people we came to serve…(communities who hadn’t seen a medical team in more than four years!)

And even though it was rough and tumble and occasionally treacherous, we were rewarded with some of the most incredible views imaginable.

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We held three clinics over three days providing general medicine, pediatrics, ENT, GYN and dentistry services to an estimated 2,000 patients! We took over schools and rural village clinics and turned them into make shift hospitals. More than ever before this felt like jungle medicine. It was at times beyond the pale, especially as multiple team members succumbed to the relentless heat, (lots of IV’s were started for people on our own team!)

Our second day was so hard I honestly just wanted to give up and go home. I didn’t and neither did anyone else but damn it was ugly. Though I suppose looking back on that second day it will go down as one of those experiences that you hold onto with pride and even a bit of awe. Like I don’t know….childbirth.

We did that…it was hard…and it was good.

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I have two highlights of this trip…

On our first day of clinic we realized that we did not have enough Lidocaine to treat all of the dental patients who came to us. We had to shut down the dental clinic by mid morning. So many people still needed dental care. A decision was made to go into “town” to buy more medication. Now going into town doesn’t quite communicate the effort undertaken here…a staffer had to travel hours back over the mountain roads to five different pharmacies before returning with every drop of anesthetic in Puruhla.

By then it was 3pm.

The medical team was finished and ready to return to Rom Tzul for the night so volunteers were solicited…a small group (including me) stayed behind to reopen the dental clinic. We were given strict instructions to close up shop and head back not a minute later than 5pm because it would be dark after that and not safe to travel back on the now muddy mountain roads.

Well we worked as fast as we could and let me tell you this team of dentists and assistants were outstanding but we could only go so fast. As 5pm rolled around we still had 20 or so patients waiting in line. They had been there ALL DAY. WAITING to sit at a school desk, tip their head back and have a dentist pull out a painful tooth. Can you imagine?

They needed us to stay.

And we did.

Two hours after our “curfew” and after seeing EVERY patient who waited on us we drove back in the dark and rain.

Maybe it was foolish, maybe it was no big deal at all, but whatever it was, it FELT LIKE THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

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The other highlight of the trip for me came on our last day. Truth be told the clinical acuity was not high most of the week. For the most part we saw patients with complaints of headache, stomachache and general pain…no surprise given the harsh conditions of rural life in Guatemala. We just didn’t see the “big” cases we medical junkies get excited about, you know the stuff you look back on a say we made a definitive difference in someone’s life.

But for one little baby we were as they say, in the right place, at the right time, WITH THE RIGHT SURGEON…

A very concerned mother and father came into the room carrying their eight week old baby. The baby had six toes on each foot and a sixth finger on his left hand. Not a big deal in the US but can you imagine this in a place where something as basic as Tylenol and Vitamins are in rare supply? What this young family could not have known is that a world class surgeon was there that day.

We draped a school desk and placed the baby on our makeshift surgical table. Using a flashlight to illuminate the surgical field and with the baby’s mother holding him in place (and even occasionally breast feeding him to soothe him) our doctor carefully removed the extra digit. All that was, well, just freaking cool… but that’s not what stood out for me.

What struck me was the humility of the surgeon doing the procedure. I was holding the flashlight so I was right next to him, “You are amazing Jeff, you changed this kids life” I said as he finished his cut. “Its not a big deal, anyone could have done it” he answered.

All I could think was, sure anyone could have done it….anyone who was a surgeon…and who had traveled to a Mayan village outside Puruhla Guatemala…on precisely this day. Yup anyone…(Just love me these everyday heroes!)

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There were of course other moments…non clinical stuff…friendships formed and strengthened, tears, laughter and straight up ridiculousness that form the memories that will stay with me for a very long time. Each of these trips has these moments: part of the richness that keeps me coming back again and again. In fact this time the tug on my consciousness has left me wondering if I should be doing “this”, whatever “this” is, as a mainstay rather than sideline activity in my life.

Ahhhhh, so much to think about…maybe its the usual re-entry emotions…

I don’t know…maybe it’s more.