By the time the trucks pulled up to the clinic in Santa Catarina, a Mayan village outside of Panajachel on Lago Atitlán, the line of people waiting stretched all the way down the block. Aged anywhere from 4 months to 93 years, some of the patients had traveled miles to get there and some had been waiting for hours. The sight brought to mind North American youths waiting outside of Best Buy for the new iPhone to come out. It´s so astounding what our priorities have become. Many of the patients who quietly waited on the cobblestone street for the clinic to open had never seen a doctor in their lives, grinning and bearing their way through years of chronic illness and pain.
Over the course of one week, our team of 12 CCNM students, two amazing Cuban attending physicians and two licensed naturopathic doctors, treated hundreds of patients. We took histories, performed physical exams, made diagnoses, imparted information, gave referrals, organized rides to the local hospital, performed manipulation and acupuncture and recommended at-home hydrotherapy. We also administered the 600 pounds of vitamins, supplements, botanical medicines and homeopathic remedies that we brought into the country, donated from a number of companies.
In addition to treating patients in the local clinic in Santa Catarina, we had the opportunity to go on rounds at the local hospital in Sololá, even scrubbing in on an appendectomy and lending out hands to various medical emergencies. We also made house calls with a team of community health workers and visited 3 local police stations, providing much-needed healthcare to the hard-working Guatemalan police force in the department of Sololá.
During the week we spent in Guatemala, I felt my perspective on health and medicine change forever. The smiles on the faces of children chewing multivitamin gummies that will most likely make a simple, yet dramatic change to their health, will stay in our memories for years. I often criticize the tendency of many naturopaths to dole out supplements to everyone, much like medical doctors do with pharmaceuticals. However, to these nutrient-deficient children, the vitamins made a world of difference.
Most of us have never felt so much love, appreciation, acceptance, sometimes frustration and responsibility in our lives; my right cheek is red from the hundreds of kisses that were planted on it. I felt so fortunate for the opportunity to learn from the Cuban-educated physicians who patiently and compassionately imparted us with their extensive knowledge and expertise, and the ER doctor at the hospital, overworked, unsung and yet astounding in his genius. Working with them was an amazing privilege. I am impressed by the presence of NMGH in the communities around Lago Atitlán, the dedication of the community health workers, the strength and kindness of the police in Sololá, the ER doctors and surgeons at the understaffed and underfunded hospital of Sololá, which tirelessly serves over 500,000 people, and the naturopathic doctors who make the program possible: Dr. Melissa, Dr. Michelle and Dr. Carlos.
Our week in Guatemala was the most eye-opening, engaging, challenging and educational week of many of our lives. I know that many of us will venture back to Guatemala, having been hooked by the loving, dynamic and diverse culture and sense of community we found there. I also know that all of us will cherish this life-altering experience as we go forth in our career as naturopathic physicians.