Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 02/19/2012

Clowns and Cloudy Eyes: A Medical Mission Comes to Town

18 febrero 2012- sabado  

Jornada medica… the Spanish name for a medical mission.  Weeks ago I was contacted about rounding up some extra volunteers to translate for a group of Texas medical staff coming to San Bartolo, my little corner of Guatemala.  With luck, my two sitemates and I were able to recruit five other volunteers so that at least 2-3 of us could help each of the four days. We were paid with free meals and transportation, and just maybe, a jar of Nutella for each of us!

Sonia and I, just clowning around

When presented with the option of helping the clowns with entertainment /crowd control or the vision clinic, I chose the latter…Yep, I have  a sense of humor, however, I wanted to help with the medical care. Hmm…I could see my program coordinator puzzling over my weekly schedule: “Clowning during a medical mission”.  The jornada was set up in an unfinished church in one of our aldeas (villages) called Paxboch, about an hour walk from the center of town. The dust from the dirt floor was a definite irritant and not the most hygienic environment. Word of mouth and posters were the main publicity, and sure enough, the people came.  Each day about 130 people arrived, some walking 1 ½ hrs each way from other villages, with coughing babies on their backs and small children in tow. Lucky ones got free rides with family or paid to travel by pickup truck.

Vision clinic...don't mind the dust!

On Day 2 and 3, I recruited my Guatemalan workmate, Sonia, the new coordinator for the Municipal Women’s office. Her bilingual skills of K’iche’ and Spanish were especially needed for the women, many of whom spoke limited or no Spanish. Yes, it was a bit like playing telephone, as the patient would speak in K’iche’ to Sonia who passed the comment in Spanish to me, then my translation to English for the doctor and back again down the chain. Time-consuming, but hey, it worked. Vision tests were also a challenge with the women who are generally illiterate, so we taught them to point their hands to indicate the direction of the different ‘E’ orientations. “¿Dónde apuntan las flechas?

Vision testing

Triage volunteers helped determine people’s main health complaints, and then ushered folks towards the makeshift rooms which separated general care, pediatrics, dentistry, vision clinic, gyn clinic, and the pharmacy.  A common list of complaints might read: “headaches, can’t see well, eyes burn, pain in right side.”  Disheartening and eye-opening was my experience as patient after patient sat down in the plastic chair for the vision clinic. So MANY cases of tissue growths and cataracts, both of which are progressive eye problems caused by the sun! The saddest case was a 16 yr old girl who had an advanced case of both problems that greatly limited her vision. An eye doctor in Xela had told her she needed surgery, but she couldn’t afford it. All we could do was give her some eye drops and free sunglasses to offer some more protection. Sadly, too little help. Most eye irritation and illness came from the environmental factors in their lives…wood smoke, chaff when cutting corn stalks, dust and sun rays when outside.

Sonia helps a woman with the eye chart and new glasses

Trying to put the best face on the situation, I struggled with the best words in Spanish to explain that they needed surgery to rid themselves of the growths or cataracts in their eyes, but if they were diligent in wearing sunglasses and hats when outdoors, that they could at least halt the growths, although not the cataracts. I hated delivering this news over and over again. Occasionally there would be an elderly person, usually male, who had excellent eyes for their age…then I could say: “La doctora dice que tiene ojos lindos y buenisimos!” Frequent wearing of a hat had often helped. Another  positive experience for both patient and myself was handing out reading glasses, with occasional distance vision glasses to those in need. Bible reading was a much desired close-up activity, and for women, also the ability to sew. With reading glasses newly perched on their noses, we handed over a needle and thread to test their vision…a cheer went up for each successful threading! The frames for distance vision had been donated, and very much resembled Harry Potter glasses, so we did our best sales job for these: “Qué bonita”, “¡Guapisimo!” Hopefully the joy of seeing again would overcome their reticence to wear these funky, new fangled glasses.

Traditional headress for San Bartolo- a rare sight!

So what did I learn over the three days that I helped…#1- that eye problems are a major problem for people in my town, due to environmental stressors and the sun. Doesn’t matter that they have dark eyes…this high altitude (6,-7,000 ft up) and extended time in the sun takes its toll. #2- the remedy often is an eye operation which is beyond their economic resources. I am now trying to track down facilities or other medical missions that might provide operations. #3- Outside medical help (especially American)gets greeted with great fanfare and enthusiasm, and yes, it does meet a need for services that can be lacking. However, our community members need to be encouraged to use the medical care available to them here and not wait for the foreigners who come every now and then. The urban center of San Bartolo does have a 24hr medical clinic, a birthing room, and yes, an ambulance, although the nearest hospital is 2hrs away.  Yes, it is basic, but the care is free and available.

I encourage any readers who might be medical staff who are considering volunteering on a medical mission to contact and coordinate with the existing medical staff of each town or village… they are the ones who remain to care for their fellow countrymen with their limited resources after the foreigners who are viewed as medical “heroes” board their plane to return home.  It was at my encouragement that two of the coordinators for the medical mission came to the health center to introduce themselves to the staff there and share what services they would be providing in Paxboch. They had not undertaken this step and were unlikely to have introduced themselves without my urging.

Two beautiful ladies in Mayan traje, Sonia y yo

All in all, it was a valuable 3 days for me. Sonia and I joke that we hope to see people out and about in their sunglasses and Harry Potter frames….we shall see. I’ve also now been thinking about better care for my own eyes…maybe some funky sunglasses will soon adorn my face. Gotta practice what I preach after all!


  1. You probably don’t remember me and I’ve been with you during each step. Thanks again for sharing. Ralph

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