This past January, in the remote Guatemalan community of San Cristobal, a team of volunteers led by Dr. Tracy Powell, emergency room physician at Fairview Southdale Hospital, spent 11 days providing 1,706 clinic visits, 148 surgeries and 535 dental sessions, and installing 72 water filters and 144 new stoves in local homes.
“What an amazing welcome we received as our buses arrived at the hospital in San Cristobal,” recalls Powell. His 92-member team consisted of both medical professionals and people with no medical training. Ages 16 to 81, all participants were volunteers and all paid a fee to be involved. Many used personal or vacation time from their regular jobs. The one attribute required of everyone: a passion to serve others.
Helps International, a 501(c)(3), is the organizing force behind almost three decades of Guatemalan medical missions. “Helps provides us the vehicle though which we can share our medical services,” says Ann Pohlad, a nursing/health care assistant at Fairview Southdale, another member of the January mission team. Among many other supportive services, Helps’ full-time staff in Guatemala secured water and electrical supply to the otherwise minimally functional San Cristobal hospital ahead of the mission team’s arrival.
A colleague of Powell, Dr. Paul Schulz, and several other Minnesota physicians made up the first Helps medical mission team. “It was January 1988,” Schulz remembers. They were astonished at what greeted them, comparing the situation to arriving at a forest fire with squirt guns. As members of the St. Cloud Midsota Plastic Surgeons group, they were prepared to repair cleft lips and palates but the medical and dental needs of the people they served were so great, Schulz says, the surgeons went home with the mission to organize the multidisciplinary teams who volunteer today. The focus, he says, was and continues to be the most remote and destitute communities of the Guatemalan highlands.
According to the Helps website, Guatemala has 8 million people in its public health care system, which spends approximately $55 per person, compared with $3,500 spent in the United States. Most services are delivered in major cities, leaving remote rural areas with little access to health care.
Medical missions are one answer to this inequity. Dental care provided by Powell’s team in San Cristobal included tooth extractions, application of sealants and education in oral hygiene. Medical and surgical professionals treated cleft lips and palates, hernias, gastritis, respiratory conditions, and neck and back pain. Chronic conditions, says Powell, are the result of residents’ physically demanding lifestyles—for example, carrying 70-pound cords of wood on their backs up mountain trails, or water in full jerry-cans on their heads. Nearly everyone is continuously exposed to smoke from cooking on open fires in their homes.
Which brings us to those 144 new stove installations. Insulated, energy-efficient, clay fire-box stoves developed by Don O’Nil of Helps address three problems associated with traditional Guatemalan open-fire cooking: facial and hand burns, particularly in children; excessive smoke inhalation, a leading cause of death in Guatemalan children under 5, and a chronic problem for all family members; and time, energy and bodily stress in gathering an estimated 18,000 pounds of wood every year, primarily done by women. After stove installation, the wood consumption was reduced by approximately 70 percent. “Stove team” volunteers come from all walks of life and do not require medical training but must be able to work long hours and perform strenuous labor in mountainous terrain.
“I was pretty much out of my comfort zone and didn’t realize how character-building it would be until after I had returned home,” Pohlad says of her San Cristobal experience. Humbled volunteers prayed daily, she says, for the health and wellness of their Guatemalan patients, only to find that many patients prayed for the Helps team in turn. “There is no gift,” she adds, “quite like the gift of good health.”
If you’d like to volunteer or donate to Helps, visit helpsintl.org and click on “Get Involved.”