An opportunity to help those in need, learn valuable skills from experts, and have a cultural and natural history adventure sounds too good to be true. We found all of the above plus the fellowship of a wonderful group of like-minded individuals on a medical mission to Guatemala in February.
The trip was arranged through Bio Bio Expeditions and led by Sheryl Olson, a former helicopter flight nurse, and her husband, Larry Moore, an emergency room physician. Both are wilderness medicine lecturers and provided CE lectures for our small group of 18. My wife, Annette, and I — a radiologist and an oral/maxillofacial surgeon — blended with nurse anesthetists; plastic and general surgeons; and OB/GYN, ER, and family physicians, several with family members but all united in a common cause.
Our mission was to deliver donated wheelchairs to severely disabled Guatemalans, both young and old. As many as 100 million children and adults worldwide are in need of a wheelchair but cannot afford one, a situation obvious in this developing country. No experience was necessary as we were taught the basics, then broke into teams to drill, modify, and assembly life-changing chairs for their new owners, ranging in age from 3 to 90. These chairs are solidly constructed and padded with multiple adjustments possible to adjust to the size and disability of each individual. For the youngest, the chair will stay with them, returning for adjustments as needed, as they grow.
Families brought loved ones from near and far by whatever means possible and then waited patiently for this opportunity to gain mobility — thanking us with tears, hugs, and profound gratefulness that only humbled us that we could not do more.
The teams worked in two locations, first in Antigua and then in a village near Lake Atitlan. We toured culturally significant and beautiful sites, received valuable wilderness medicine training, and enjoyed evening meals in the company of new friends from across the United States and even Australia.
After our last wheelchair was delivered, a brief ceremony was held where the town’s leading official thanked and called us forward. He then presented each of us with what he called a simple gift to show the appreciation of the people we helped, a colorful hand-woven scarf that he draped around the neck with gratitude and affection. Yes, sometimes anticipated goals do come true as we donated, modified, and delivered desperately needed wheelchairs to help young children and seniors and their families further cope with a loved one’s daily struggles.
We spent our downtime in continuing medical education lectures provided in our hotel or on the bus while traveling between locations. We also enjoyed tours and hikes around Antigua and Indian villages on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The region is famous for its dramatic volcanoes that many choose to hike, so hot that you can toast marshmallows near the top. The charming Spanish colonial era towns with cobblestone streets and locals dressed in their traditional garments look as if you went back in time several hundred years. But beyond the volcanic scenery and wilderness training we received, we will remember and treasure that simple scarf, the grateful beautiful people who struggle through hardship with quiet dignity, and the new friends we made through a shared experience.
Robert Griffith writes from Abington.
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