Sunday, June 20, 2010

One month to live on Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala was to be my place of immersion in the Spanish language and developing world medical experience, but when I arrived one month ago I discovered a wealth of culture, mystery, politics and adventure.

It is a common story in Texas, the young student ardently studies a foreign language in high school only to become mired in the drudgery of it and never gain knowledge usable in a practical sense. Then the student studies abroad for a semester or so and returns home with the aroma of new idioms on his breath; the sounds of strange syllables in patterns quite foreign. After taking 5 years of Spanish classes, my hands needed to get dirty before I could really catch on.
Besides needing speak to my patients, other workers, people at the market or on the transport boats, living with a nurse named Guatalupe was the sweetest part of my immersion. We had a great time laughing, joking and cooking, yeah! (If any of you want to try out Guatemalan pico or other sorts of Guatemalan food, I feel fairly proficient in cookin' this comida.)

Although it seems like a possible vacation, this trip to a mountain-lake paradise was all about business. My work schedule consisted of: 2 half days of medical Spanish lecture given by one of my Doctors, 2-3 days of clinic which occurred mostly in small lakeside villages in El Departmento de Santa Cruz la Laguna, lot's of independent study

(pic on the lower left and middle right by Stephane / lower right by Jessica)

MY NORMAL DAY went as such: wake up at 5:30ish because Guadalupe and I would exercise a bit / walk up to the health post to pack up our instruments and medicines in travel suitcases, transfer them to a pick-up truck to be transported down the winding steep road to the lake's edge where we met the doctors and a boat to transport us across the lake a few kilometers to one of the various clinics / attend to patients until there were no more (usually 9am till 1-3pm) and then return home... bringing the equipment all the way back up the hill to the health post where it could safely be stored.

The doctors here were an ER doc from the states and a Pediatric doc from Guatemala. For 7 years they have been providing curative care, in coordination with the ministry, to 10,000 people on the northern side of the lake. I say curative because the Guatemalan Ministry of health focuses primarily on preventative care as they have limited funds and it is more cost effective. Currently ministry funds are so low that no health professionals have received paychecks in 2 months.

Kind of hard to work for nothing right? Thanks to the medical Spanish program that I paid tuition for, these docs are able to support their activities with little reliance on fundraising or ministry support... and us students are certainly not left out in the deal!

(these pictures of Dona Paulina by Jessica)
Last year the docs heard that a woman living alone above one of the villages needed medical attention. This cutest of tiny Mayan ladies above is Dona Paulina. She had no sons to care for her in old age and thus has lived alone for many decades. She actually had acquired a large circumferential sore wrapping around her left lower leg! They did not know if it would be the end of this woman or not, and for the last 9 months various students in the program and volunteers have consistently hiked up the mountain to clean and dress the wound and to support her with food donations. By the time I was able to take part in Paulina's care her ulcer had healed considerably, nearly 75%! And although I saw just a smudge of progress during my month, I felt privileged to help in the communal effort to help this poor widow.
(Our mountain path came across a full stream, necessitating a dramatic leap to the other side)
(my travel companion and Canadian medical student Stephane, behind Volcan Santioguito is passing some gas)
(Cerro de la Cruz, looking out on the old capital of central american during the Colonial Period)

Adventures were not hard to come by in Guatemala. Whether is was evading certain doom through Tropical depression Agatha, witnessing close-up volcanoes belch out plumes of ash, trekking through mountain cloud forests, spending time with a Guatemalan family or traveling by "chicken bus"...

(This brightly colored bus is affectionately known as "chicken bus" by us gringos because people are packed so tightly. Sometimes 3 to a seat and then standing room too)
(damaged/destroyed houses in Jaibalito, via mud slide)
(Damaged Gringo house from a rock slide, Santa Cruz; by Stephane)
(white out, normally this is a beautiful lake view, but the rain was rather thick)

Over all, this has been my favorite rotation in 3rd year; not sure if that is a certain sign of my future career in international medicine or simply that a tropical paradise is a fun place to live. I would definitely return to Lago de Atitlan for a year or more if the opportunity presented. Thank you all for the caring emails and emotional support.