Earlier this month, Emily Hendel (Director of Clinical Services) and Miriam Barger (Care Coordination Manager) spent a week in Guatemala, visiting San Lucas and nearby villages in the region to provide health care. The journey was coordinated by Minnesota Doctors for People (MDP), an organization whose mission is “to provide free compassionate healthcare for people in need.” Sounds like something CommunityHealth can get behind! MDP has coordinated over 30 trips to Guatemala and Mexico since their founding. Though they had originally planned to visit San Lucas in April of 2020, Emily and Miriam found the experience to be well worth the two-year wait!
San Lucas is a city of about 20,000 people located on the Southern side of Lake Atitlan. MDP works with Friends of San Lucas, a nonprofit organization that is based out of the Catholic parish in San Lucas. Friends of San Lucas supports the local missions of the parish including nutrition programs, healthcare, fair trade coffee growing/roasting, and education. Most notably, the Friends’ mission over the years has been buying back finca land and returning ownership to the people to live and grow food on. (Fincas were/are large plantations of land that was stolen from the Guatemalan people and used to grow fruit and sugar cane, employing people at near slave labor compensation.) Typically, MDP goes to San Lucas twice per year to support their healthcare work. This visit was Emily’s fifth time to participate in an MDP service trip.
Not only does CommunityHealth’s mission align with that of MDP, there are also many similarities between our patient population and the people of San Lucas. Both groups are low-income and Hispanic. Diabetes and high blood pressure are extremely common chronic issues. Emily adds that the patients in both places are “incredibly kind, proud, hard working, and family- and community-centered.”
However, residents of San Lucas face challenges like malnutrition and parasitic infection at far higher rates than residents of Chicago. Many resources that CommunityHealth provides patients, such as diagnostic testing, specialty care, and medications, are simply not available for patients in San Lucas. Miriam was also struck by the levels of malnutrition, in combination with the “health complaints related to the hard physical exposure they put their body into while working.” We know that a patient’s environment and lifestyle have a major impact on their well-being; it can be eye-opening to see that effect in the extreme.
While caring for patients, Emily and Miriam also met local community health workers, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, mission staff, and other volunteers. When asked about what she learned in working alongside them, Emily responded,
“My biggest takeaway is always the critical role of empowering local leadership to build and sustain programs to meet their community’s needs long after our groups are gone. The fact that there is a strong community hospital and Community Health Worker (CHW) program in San Lucas is one of the reasons I love to go on these trips. The CHWs take the lead in coordinating the work that we do in country and following up with patients after we are gone.”
As the CommunityHealth team expands to include two new CHWs of our own, Emily’s experience in San Lucas can help inform how our program functions. Miriam adds,
“It was helpful to see how the organization in San Lucas focused on building programs that help local people to empower themselves to be independent and support them through programs in which they can participate, learn from, and eventually use as their income. For example, a program designed to help women to learn cooking and sewing skills. These programs not only motivate them to feel themselves better through knowledge, but also give them new skills to eventually create an extra income to help at finances at home.”
Because of the leadership of local Community Health Workers, the aid being given in San Lucas, Guatemala is far from saviorism. Listening to the needs of the community you are serving is an integral part of providing care, no matter who that community is. “People are resilient and strong and deserving of dignity,” says Emily.
Another lesson learned by international travel is perspective. In getting to know the community of San Lucas, both Miriam and Emily felt surprise at the attitudes they encountered. Miriam remarks,
“The local people, regardless of the poverty they experience on daily basis, still live happy full lives!”
“We live in such relative wealth as a society and yet are often still so focused on wanting more. I include myself in this shortcoming,” Emily adds.
While we’re happy that our staff members got the chance to experience health care in another country, we’re also so glad to have them back in the clinic with all they new lessons they’ve learned from their trip.