When I was a student at Anna Maria Elementary School, the school nurse would periodically visit school and among other things (like weighing and measuring us) she would administer inoculations to us. When we would see her, we would all shudder, fearing it was our turn for shots. So you can imagine how wonderful it was when, one day when I was in 5th grade, she came with a new kind of protection for us. It was the drinkable, liquid polio vaccine. For all practical purposes that was the end of that dreaded disease for all of us, but not for the rest of the world.
I have recently returned from participating in a medical mission to a tiny village in southern Guatemala, about 30 miles from El Salvador. The first night as we volunteers met after dinner, we were asked by the mission leader why we came to do this work. Of course I had gone to accompany my husband who is a doctor (dermatologist). Luckily the mission had jobs for non-medically-skilled “grunts”. As each volunteer told their story, one who had been on the previous year’s mission told us that we volunteers would receive more from the Guatemalans than they would from us. She went on to say that the mission was really about us.
As a “grunt” I was assigned to the vision clinic. The Lions Clubs of America collect used prescription glasses and donate them to causes such as this mission. Each pair of glasses is in a small plastic bag with the prescription of the glasses written on the bag. It was my job along with my fellow unskilled “grunts” to figure out which pair of used glasses would work for each of the 200 or more people that we served. Our means to check their eyes were three instruments: a Snelling chart of the big Es, an up-close reading chart, and an instrument that one looks through and then adjusts until the 7th line of the Snelling chart is in focus. Then by looking at this instrument, one can tell the prescription needed for that eye. So imagine trying to find a pair of glasses that measures correctly for each eye for 200 people. No evaluation was made for astigmatism but many of the glasses had corrections for astigmatism.
The Guatemalans came by foot, bicycle, truck, and colorful chicken busses, the ones crowded with people and overloaded many times with caged chickens! Adults and children alike waited outside the school gate to be triaged into the make-shift school-transformed-into-a-clinic. There were two, three, or four doctors in each of three classrooms. Privacy for examinations and for dividing each room into doctor’s offices was obtained by putting up sheets with rope or taping paper over the windowless barred window openings. With no air conditioning, the clinic rooms were very hot and dusty. We all carried our bottled waters religiously.
A Lesson in Giving – part 2
Since most patients needed eye glasses, medical and dental care, and vitamins and prescriptions, they usually spent the entire day at the clinic, often waiting several hours between examinations and treatments and usually taking care of several small children all the while. There was never a cross word, a forlorn glare, an ungrateful or demanding patient.
Most patients, adults and children alike, had intestinal worms, abdominal pains, rotten teeth, and various other maladies. There were no doctors or nurses in their village and none of these people could afford to go somewhere away and pay for medical or dental care. They lived in one-room homes with thatched roofs, four corner posts, and dirt floors. There was no furniture in their houses, no running water, no plumbing, no electricity. They slept in string hammocks and washed themselves and their clothes in the stream.
Many children came to the vision clinic along with their parents. They complained of not being able to see on the chalkboard (the children’s only educational equipment) when the teacher would write the lessons. Or they complained of headaches and eye strain. With them, just as with the adults, I tried my best to find glasses that would somewhat match their vision needs. During the course of the five days, two young girls whom I cannot forget came to the vision clinic. As was my habit, I read each chart to see what the patient had told the triage team their problem was. After all I could not depend 100% on my Spanish to understand why they were coming to vision. It was then that I read the internist’s remarks. Polio. Each girl had had polio as a toddler. It made sense because they were crippled, but it made no sense too, because that’s a disease that has a 50-year-old-cure. It’s a disease that we don’t consider. Seeing the ravages of an otherwise curable disease in an unfortunate child is a sobering experience. I finally understood the horror and the dread with which so many parents lived before the cure.
It was just like that with their teeth. A dental team was forced to extract teeth which would otherwise never be pulled in our dentist offices but instead would receive root canals and caps. One three-year-old child had 10 teeth pulled. (Sodas are cheaper than milk or water.) It took four people to hold him down during the procedure. It became common to see young adults, some carrying small children, holding wash cloths over the fronts of their mouths, protecting where their permanent teeth had been earlier that day.
The dentists felt it the most, the distance in time, the space between the first- and third-world countries, the time machine that keeps them in the past and prevents them from accessing what is ordinary for us. The disease they have for which there seems no cure is called poverty. It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s deadly. And when I found myself face to face with it, my heart cried for these very kind, very sweet, hard working and trusting people.
It happened to me, just like that volunteer said on the first night of the mission: I received a lot more than I gave. My awareness grew, my innocence abated. I took my rings off before I went to Guatemala. I didn’t want to invite crime. Now that I’m home, I haven’t been able to put them back on yet. I feel guilty for the random fortune of my geographical birth and for their misfortune in being born in a third-world neighbor of ours.
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher