Guatemala with Naturopathic Medicine for Global Health

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I want to thank everyone that helped contribute to the experience, from the people who donated directly to me, to those who participated in our fundraising events and the many companies who gave supplements to stock the clinic! Adelante, no tengan pena!
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17 thoughts on “Guatemala with Naturopathic Medicine for Global Health

  1. This is a great article, Talia! I’m very proud for the help you offered and the difference you made in so many people’s life while in Guatemala. Well done!

    1. Thanks, Frances! It was an amazing experience and, really, I feel like we learned so much and derived so much benefit from the experience, perhaps more than the people we treated. I was awed by all the people involved in the organization, mainly Guatemaltecos and some Cuban physicians, and the work that they do there. I definitely recommend it for anyone wanting to do a medical brigade!

  2. Talia,
    Great and eye-opening article, thanks! I just wanted to know why you decided to go the naturopathic way, and if some of the naturopathic medication and treatment you doled out was mixed with conventional medicine. Also, what was the reaction of the locals when you recommended these treatments? Were they wary at first, or did they accept everything at face value?
    Alana

    1. Hi, Alana, thanks for the comment!
      I can tell you that, with regards to providing naturopathic medicine in Guatemala, none of the patients raised any concerns about the treatments they received. As far as they were concerned we were just doctors, taking their history, performing physical exams and providing treatments. Some of them had never received acupuncture or spinal manipulation before and so were understandingly apprehensive, but all of them came away from the experience commenting that they felt, better, cared for, heard and satisfied.

      We worked alongside Cuban medical doctors who have some of the best medical education in the world. Actually, their style of practice is very in-line with naturopathic practice. They took the time to communicate with the patients, educated them on their conditions, wrote out clear instructions and explained lab tests and pathologies to them, as well as doled out lifestyle interventions, such as diet and exercise prescriptions. They even occasionally prescribed drugs but, out of the 100 patients we saw, only a handful of prescriptions were indicated (there was an upgrade of a diabetic drug, an antibiotic for pneumonia, and a first-line blood pressure lowering medication, for example) in addition to the natural therapies that were prescribed.

      One of the beautiful things about the experience was the exchange that took place between us and the attending physicians. I think they came away from the experience with new knowledge about how naturopathic therapies work. In one case, a patient who presented with a malignant skin lesion and who we referred to the hospital for a biopsy, one of the doctors told me that I should give him some fish oils and a multivitamin to “support his body” through the disease.

      I think the way we practice medicine isn’t only characteristic of naturopathic medicine but is just good practice, in many ways. As we realize that only doling out pharmaceuticals in many cases isn’t indicated, oftentimes is even harmful to the patient and doesn’t address the cause of disease, especially in chronic conditions, I think most medical professionals will come around to the “naturopathic way”, of considering diet, the healing power of the body and implementing non-invasive therapies that support the body and encourage it to heal itself. On that note I’m currently in a lecture where we are learning that the top MDs in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder are glorified “naturopathic doctors”, focusing on supplementation, digestion, diet and detoxification. Very interesting!

  3. Wonderful blog… I live in Panajachel, Jucanya, on the road to Santa Catarina and am so pleased and proud that such a wonderful group of homeopaths and trainees came here from the U.S. to truly help out, where so much help is needed. We do all we can to help provide jobs, but education and health care are much needed as well. Kudos to you and all who come with you… We need more people in the world like YOU and your fine organization!

    Catherine Todd, AtitlanArts.com

    PS: I added your organization to the free online LakeAtitlanDirectory.com. Anytime you’d like to update your record, just let me know. CTodd1000 at gmail dot com.

      1. Talia, so good to hear back from you, so quickly, too! Please be sure to have your friend at Escuela Caracol in San Marcos la Laguna. contact me and put her info into the free online LakeAtitlanDirectory.com. It’s for community services, white and yellow pages, since we have no phone book around lovely Lake Atitlan. Let me know if / when you are coming back! There will always be a place here for you!

        Catherine Todd, AtitlanArts.com
        CTodd1000 at gmail dot com

      1. Are you still here at Lake Atitlan or are you coming back? I’ve got a free place for you to stay in Pana anytime! CatherineTodd2 at gmail dot com. AtitlanArts.com

      2. Thanks, Catherine! I’m not in Guate anymore, but I do foresee myself going back one day, maybe in the next year. I will definitely take you up on your offer. The people, the scenery and the work around Lago Atitlan definitely hooked me and I know I’ll have to venture back soon! Take care!

      3. Talia, I look foward to your return! Offer still stands as long as I have an extra bed for you to lay your head! CatherineTodd2 at gmail dot com.

  4. Loved this post, Talia! Any plans to go abroad again before graduation? Plans (in my head, of course 😉 have already been made to join up with one of the global ND relief projects during the course of school, and possibly take my practice abroad once graduated. I feel even more passionate and focused after reading this. Thank you! I’m thoroughly enjoying living vicariously through your blog, great work and great writing. Your passion shines right through.

    1. Hi again! I’ve actually applied for a 1-month externship with NDI (Natural Doctors International) in Nicaragua for the month of August. I’m really really excited about it. Guatemala was an amazing experience. I would highly highly recommend it. I learned so much in the short week that we were there. Thank you for the praise!

      1. No way! NDI is run by one of the faculty at Bastyr’s SD campus–it’s at the forefront of my mind and one of the reasons I’m drawn to Bastyr San Diego. When I visited the campus, the project and the professor were given rave reviews by students and faculty; my own ND here in Ventura who went to NCNM also follows the project closely. Excited for you, with your background, I foresee success. And I just give credit where it’s due!

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