A young mother brings her son with a neuromuscular disease to see a doctor for the first time since birth. At 15 months, the child misses traditional milestones like looking up and playing peekaboo.
Her son was born during Guatemala’s strictest COVID-19 restrictions, so the mother, who resides in the impoverished countryside of San Lucas Tolimán on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, had not yet had the chance to see a doctor.
This lack of medical care is the norm for rural Guatemalans. This is where Minnesota Doctors for People (MDP) comes in.
Mankato-based medical volunteers (mndoctors.org) visited the San Lucas area March 23-31, after a two-year hiatus from regular annual visits. They saw 166 patients – a fraction of their pre-pandemic baseline.
By American standards, makeshift clinics set up in school buildings and other residential structures can seem shoddy — stray dogs and chickens can encroach on patient waiting areas. But for residents, they are crucial touchpoints for medical care. Most patients suffer from minor ailments, but these can become major problems if left untreated. And other situations are more urgent. An elderly woman, weighing 59 pounds, arrived with a large hernia, for which she was referred to a specialist.
“When you’re here you always know there are so many more people you could have taken care of,” said Cathy Davis, MDP team leader and pediatrician. “It’s the hardest thing…that you leave behind people who need care.”
Minnesota Doctors for People volunteered in Guatemala in cooperation with Friends of San Lucas, an Eagan-based nonprofit partner of the longtime San Lucas Tolimán Mission.
Friends of San Lucas (FOSL) was started in 2012 by the late Reverend Gregory Schaffer, a diocesan priest from New Ulm who had pastored San Lucas since 1963. Knowing he was dying, he asked a group of committed friends and sympathizers to continue the work.
May 24 is the 10th anniversary of Schaffer’s death, but his legacy lives on. For more than four decades, Schaffer has established schools, a hospital, and several locally run programs aimed at ensuring the health and independence of Guatemalans, including a coffee cooperative and a women’s center.
You don’t have to search long in the villages surrounding San Lucas, where Schaffer is buried, to find a plaque or building bearing his name in honor of his humanitarian efforts. He was awarded the Order of Quetzal, the country’s highest honor, in 2007.
A legacy of income inequality
When Schaffer began his work, there were no paved roads in the San Lucas area. Many concrete houses in the city today were once straw huts and residents lived in poverty, a legacy of an era of forced labor.
Reverend John Goggin, also of the Diocese of New Ulm, worked alongside Schaffer for decades and oversaw the parish and fledgling social programs when Schaffer returned to the United States to raise funds. He said when Schaffer began his work in rural areas, the terrain was often one of the biggest challenges.
Getting to some of these communities “involved four-wheel-drive vehicles. It meant crossing streams,” Goggin said.
In cooperation with local leaders, Schaffer led social justice efforts to reduce poverty and its root causes – lack of education and inequities in land ownership. Local literacy rates are said to have increased from 20% to 80% in part due to the mission’s efforts.
Although Schaffer has been gone for nearly a decade, those who knew him best say his presence is still felt.
“All of these programs that the mission and the Friends of San Lucas pursue are his legacy and his presence,” Goggin said. “And people are very grateful to Father Greg and those who have taken over and expanded some of these programs.”
Schaffer provided rudimentary medical care to the sisters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame – which provide an education to Guatemalans – and legend has it that he would give aspirin for pain above the neck and vitamins for whatever is below the neck, Goggin said. Lines of people waiting for Schaffer’s medical attention “got pretty short,” he joked.
Understanding the need for qualified medical providers, Schaffer expanded the medical program of which MDP is now a part. They join other health care efforts around San Lucas that aim to empower residents to see a doctor and understand their own health.
In addition to providing affordable health care at the Mission Associated Hospital – patients can be seen for 10 mostly ceremonial quetzales, or about $1.50, and can have surgery for 200 quetzales, or about $26 – the mission and FOSL employ health promoters, who understand local customs and attitudes, to encourage more people to see a doctor.
“Part of our philosophy was to respond to people’s expressed needs,” Goggin said.
The most common medical issues encountered by MDP providers when they visited in March were related to diabetes and work-related injuries such as joint cysts or back pain. Many of those who came to the clinics did so simply to get vitamins for their children or ibuprofen for pain. But whatever the reason for the visits, Davis said she was happy to provide service.
The patients are “very grateful and their kindness fills me up,” Davis said. “It was nice to see a patient whose mother just needed reassurance that her daughter was okay.”
While the return of MDP to San Lucas may be a good sign for residents seeking medical treatment, some patients may have to wait a little longer. Minnesota Doctors for People planned his trip to Guatemala about two years ago, so his providers were eager to get going. But other doctors, who have been struggling with the hardships of the pandemic, have not been so willing to use their precious free time to volunteer abroad.
Patrick Twomey, FOSL’s medical volunteer coordinator, said there were no medical volunteer groups lined up for April. But Davis remains optimistic that as COVID continues to become more manageable, doctors will volunteer.
“When things calm down and there aren’t as many sick people – and I think we’re headed in that direction – it will be easier to find providers who are willing to take their vacations to see patients,” he said. she declared.
Casey Ek is a St. Paul-based freelance multimedia journalist. He is editor of the nonprofit Community Reporter.