The flight is easy and the views are breathtaking as we make our decent into Guatemala. The lush green mountains recede from view and the city awaits below. I am full of anticipation unsure of what the week will bring for my second dental mission trip to Guatemala. We land, face a few set-backs and load our 30 something bags full of dental supplies onto the bus our Salud Y Paz team coordinator has waiting for us.
Before we know it we are whizzing through Guatemala City as colorful chicken buses full of Guatemalans race past us seemingly inches from my window closed due to the suffocating fumes. A place so beautiful and peaceful from the sky now seems chaotic. Soon the bustling city disappears and the mountainous roads take us deep into rural Guatemala. Throughout this week we will travel to several villages full of people awaiting dental treatment.
The first day of clinic we walk into a concrete room so dusty it’s hard to breathe. In an attempt to let some light in, I use a rusty piece of metal to prop open one of the small dingy windows. A little fresh air rushes in but not enough to stifle the musty smell. One of my teammates begins to sweep in an attempt to make the room “clean.” Yeah right, that would take all day. It’s now 9:30am and we are to see patients at 10. There is now a huge cloud of dust, it’s almost suffocating. I leave the room to take deep breaths of fresh air. Outside the air is crisp and clean high in the mountains of Guatemala. I take in the beauty that surrounds me and wonder how such poverty exists in a place so majestic. Our space is tight to say the least but it could be worse. As the dust settles, I watch as Dr. B, a 10 year veteran of the Guatemala mission team, uses his experience to turn the dirty concrete storage room into a functioning dental clinic. He stands back, surveys the room, and begins pointing and directing the team on the perfect placement of our equipment and designated dental stations. No one complains about the space, we are all eager to help, and we get to work. A puzzle of corrugated plastic pieces are pulled from a small box and assembled into dental chairs. It’s hard to believe the 30 lb box I carried from the van 10 minutes ago is now a chair where over the course of this week hundreds of patients will lay down and receive much needed dental treatment . After 30 minutes of arranging, rearranging, finding missing dental instruments, and making sure the portable suction machines are working,the transformation is remarkable. The team, many of whom are still strangers to one another, worked effectively to create an impromptu dental clinic. Before you know it, the team has created a waiting area, two treatment areas, triage, sterilization, and a pharmacy…all in concrete cinder block room. It will do the job for today…
What location awaits us tomorrow, no one knows.
Those anticipating treatment peer curiously into the new dental clinic. They dress in traditional colorful fabrics which are unique to each region. Many seem nervous and unsure about us. I use my broken Spanish to make friendly conversations and crack a few smiles. I watch a few of my teammates take selfies with some of the children who giggle and marvel as they watch themselves live on the cell phone screen. Our patients are the often neglected and underserved people of Guatemala. Many are of Mayan decent and only speak the native language which is being lost with each new generation. Most times,missionaries are the only access to care that they have. Dental care is almost non-existent in these hard to reach rural areas. There are families that don’t even own a toothbrush, rampant decay in children, adults facing deadly infections, and teenagers already affected by severe periodontal disease and tooth loss . It’s absolutely heart breaking, but Salud y Paz and the missionaries they host are working hard to make a change. The days in clinic can be long…8 to 9 hours with a 15 minute break for peanut butter and jelly, an assortment of chips, sugary treats, and lots of laughs. The food we eat can get boring after a week so Dr. B hosts a competition for the most interesting sandwich creation.
That morning, before we even arrived at our destination, the patients were already lined up out the door hopeful for relief from their pain and infections. The Guatemalans are kind, gracious and so very thankful. I triage the first patients asking “donde duele?” Quickly jot down the teeth to be extracted on a small slip of paper, and let the doctors know the location of greatest pain and infection. Due to time constraints we can’t always remove every infected tooth but the doctors try their best to remove the ones causing pain and the worst infection. There is a wooden bench where patients sit awaiting treatment. Children cry as they listen to the wails of their siblings as they are freed from infected rotten teeth…many so decayed that they crumble under the force of the instruments used to pull them. I try to console a child in pain. I pull a “sticky Hand” out of my CamelBack and show a child how it sticks to anything you sling it at. They laugh and forget about the pain to come for a bit as they throw the sticky hand and it sticks to my leg. Later, as I assist a doctor, I sit wiping tears from a sniffling Guatemalan boy who just had most of his infected baby teeth removed. My teammate, Marc, aka El Jefe, makes sure he receives the Children’s Tylenol we use for pain…just one tablespoon. We have to make sure there is enough for every child…there are many to serve and our supply is very limited due to budget constraints. The sweet boy tries to put on a brave face as he sees his little sister and clutches the stuffed beanie baby we gave him. Later, holding the hand of a 6 year old girl, I use the other to sooth her, gently brushing hair from her tiny forehead furrowed with worry and fear. She is brave as Dr. G removes the teeth that prevent her from concentrating at school due to the pain they inflict on her.
Eventually, the desolation of seeing so much preventable disease in such helpless children gets to me. usually hold my composure but I couldn’t help but cry as I held down the legs of a 4 yr old boy kicking and sobbing in pain as the doctor extracted 6 baby teeth so decayed that tiny black stumps were all you could see peering out of his bloody gums…soon the pain that kept him up at night would be gone. The amount and severity of decay is unfathomable to American culture. The common knowledge that we take for granted is still unknown to many Guatemalans. Unfortunately, these parents aren’t educated on dental care and nearly every child is affected by dental decay and the pain that ensues. I hide my tears the best I can and assure myself that we are doing all we can to help these unfortunate families. Education will bring the change and Salud y Paz is one organization working hard to make progress.
It’s becoming dark as we break down our “clinic” for today. It returns to its original purpose as a storage room in the back of a school. We try to get home before dark for safety reasons. However, there were so many in need and the doctors strived to serve every last one who made the trip to our clinic…many walked miles on foot. On the bumpy trip home, I watch as one of our doctors leans his head forward stretching his neck and rubbing his tired hands. It’s been a long day but the reward is always so sweet. The day was a success! Almost 100 teeth were extracted by our 2 dentists with the assistance of a great team, and so many were relieved of terrible infections threatening their bodies with aggressive bacteria. There is nothing better than being the hands and feet of God and showing these neglected people that we care about them. On the van ride back we enjoy oatmeal raisin cookies and Oreos. I dig through my CamelBack for the Dramamine Dr. G and I depend on for the 45 minute journey back down the twisting cliff-side roads edging the lush green mountains of Guatemala . Once” home” it’s a quick shower and dinner,something sure to include black beans,pan and homemade tortillas. After dinner, one of our team members takes their turn hosting the nightly devotional…this is a sweet time to reflect on what God is showing us, experience great fellowship, and get some great laughs as we learn about one another. At around 10 o’clock I’m back in our room. We paid the hotel keep 2 quetzals to prepare a fire in the wood burning fireplace near the foot of our two beds. By the light of the warmth, I pick up “A Whole in our Gospel” by Richard Stearns,read a few chapters and drift off into a restful sleep….but not for long. At 3am, I am jolted from my peaceful state. Outside my window on the streets of Chichicastanango, gunshots and cannons startle my roommate and I awake! We stumble to our window peering through rod-iron bars amazed to see the Guatemalans are celebrating with fireworks and a parade in the streets! Tomorrow is a big day and the Guatemalans really know how to advertise for the largest outdoor market in Central America. In an attempt to smother the “party” in the streets, I layer pillows over my head and somehow drift back to sleep. At 6:30am we wake to a new day, maybe a little less rested that we would like but are more than ready to tackle a new day and change some more lives. We have 6 more days in this beautiful place and every one of them needs to count.
This July, I’ll have the opportunity serve the Guatemalan people again. I’ve been asked many times why I would spend 8 days laced with hard work in a foreign country, ravaged with poverty and disease. After reading this tiny glimpse of a day in Guatemala hopefully you don’t have to ask that question of me. The Guatemalans are beautiful humble people of God who have been neglected by those in power and suffer a great deal. They are denied basic care that we often take for granted. I find joy and peace serving as Christ would in a place full of so much need. We hope that the people we serve get a glimpse God’s love and mercy through the work we do and the relief we bring. I always leave Guatemala with a renewed since of peace, purpose and a clear vision of what God wants me to do with this life. Through the work of Salud y Paz, the Guatemalans are receiving job training, education, and health care vital to a happier and healthier society. We aren’t all called to serve in this way but I hope you find your own way to serve whatever purpose you hold dear to your heart. For now, I’m called to Guatemala. “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return…” Luke 12:48