On A Mission
The Grasp of God in Guatemala
Children ran about with energy as boundless and carefree as the bubbles dancing in the wind around them. They reached toward the sky as the evanescent spheres floated higher and higher, smiling as radiantly as the sun that warmed the rich colors of the mountains in the distance.
Inside, a stream of families passed through the day’s makeshift medical facility – an empty gymnasium in Chiul, Guatemala, with cement floors layered in dust. Clothespins secured sheets to a thin string the mission team wrapped through the ceiling structure, separating the doctors and the dental team into cubicle-like rooms and offering their patients the greatest amount of privacy possible.
The children stayed at the clinic all day, peeking in the side door or just over the windowsills to catch small glimpses of the mysterious and rare occurrence – medical examinations that, here in the United States, might be considered routine check-ups. They ran barefoot in their mismatched clothing, lice speckling some of their unkempt hair. One boy’s right eye was so red and swollen that he could barely keep it open, but unaware that anything was wrong, he had no plans to see the doctor. With the help of an interpreter, members of the mission team asked him to go home and return with his mother. He did and was treated for the infection.
The group from Fort Smith’s First United Methodist Church, led by former internal medicine specialist Dr. David Staggs, included 14 people – five doctors, one dentist, two dental assistants and others who assisted with triage, pharmacy and sanitary needs. This number, however, amounted to only half of the team. A coordinator, seven translators and a skilled bus driver, hired by the church’s Guatemalan partner Project Salud y Paz, were an integral part of the mission work throughout the communities of San Antonio, Chiul, Xemanzana and Cunén.
Over the course of four days, 721 patients were seen, 268 teeth were extracted from infected, pained mouths and nearly 70 glasses were given to those with poor vision. Multiple cases of scabies were treated. Wax buildup was flushed from full ears. Relief was given to those with unresolved aches and pains, some of which had been problematic for months or even years, and mothers saw their unborn babies for the first time on an ultrasound monitor.
Like other churches and organizations in Fort Smith, First United Methodist Church has long been involved in foreign missions – first in Haiti and later in Mexico. When drug cartel activities worsened along the border, a search for a new location to serve began.
Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock connected the Rev. Janice Sudbrink and the rest of the team with Salud y Paz, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church and dedicated to providing health services and education to the Mayan population in Guatemala. The church first sent a team of missionaries in 2012, and they have returned for a week in February every year since.
Preparations begin in the middle of summer, Staggs said. He orders a number of medications, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antihypertensives, artificial tears and treatments for issues such as diabetes and parasitic infections. Once delivered, volunteers separate the pills into individual doses and print labels in Spanish for each packet. Everything, including medical and dental equipment, is packed into 17 donated suitcases, and then a complete manifest is outlined, which is translated and forwarded to the Ministry of Public Health, allowing the medications to pass through customs upon the team’s arrival.
The mission trip receives generous support from the church and its congregation, as well as through fundraisers, Staggs said. This year, there were two – a fish fry in November and a benefit piano recital by junior high student Vivian Apple in January.
In accordance with the mission of Salud y Paz, the Guatemalan people were not just treated, but also educated about healthy living and self-care. Vitamins, as well as toothbrushes and containers of toothpaste, were passed out to patients alongside the medications provided by Blessings International, a nonprofit organization in Broken Arrow, Okla., that facilitates medical missions.
Overall, the week was joyous and successful, but that is not to say it was immune to grief. On the last day at the Salud y Paz clinic in Cunén, radiologist Dr. Blake Hocott experienced two heart-rending situations – one female patient dying from cancer and another who was expecting to hear her unborn baby’s heartbeat only to discover she had miscarried. Hand in hand, prayers were lifted aloud and translated into each patient’s native language, either Spanish or K’iche’.
Staggs recalls a memory from one of his first years in Guatemala, in which a young mother brought in her infant child, who was in the final stages of hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain.
“I remember thinking that if this child had been born in the United States, early treatment with shunting (which would regulate the flow of the fluid) might have allowed the child to live,” he said. “However, there was absolutely nothing medically that we could do for the child, and even if we could have gotten the baby to a hospital in Guatemala City, it was just too late. What we could do, we did. We prayed with the mother and grandmother and shed some tears, as well. I will never be able to forget that experience.”
Many of these patients will go a full year before seeing a doctor again, but Salud y Paz is working to reduce this gap in time by making affordable medical and dental care more readily available in its three permanent clinics and by hosting teams from the United States throughout the year.
“Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves,” Staggs said. “The people of Guatemala are our neighbors, and by helping them we are sharing the love of Christ with each other. God willing, we will return in 2019.”
– Story and photos by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Knox is a photographer and journalist based in Houston. More of her work may be viewed at lawrenceelizabeth.com.
This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.