Experience: Volunteering in Guatemala

In February 2014, I had the opportunity to be involved in a medical mission innmgh_logo_3-2-300x151 Panajachel, Guatemala with an American organization called
Naturopathic Medicine for GlobalHealth“. Although I had already been to Guatemala in the past, this was an incredibly enriching experience that I hope will help me become a better naturopathic doctor in the next years.

Only 6 students from my school (CCNM: Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine) were willing to sacrifice their reading week and quite a bit of money to volunteer for this experience. I left on my own, 5 days before the start of our mission, to take some time in Antigua, just an hour away from Guatemala City. I haven’t visited every part of Guatemala, but this was my favorite city last time I visited and I just wanted to take a few days to relax and re-vist some of my favorite spots. And study a little… Reading week was actually right before our midterm exam week so I tried to study a few hours every day to not get too far behind. 🙂

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

This is probably the most well-known symbol of Antigua: Santa Catalina Arch. I love the colorful and quiet streets of Antigua in the morning. And the sight of the 3 volcanoes surrounding the city is incredible. As is having breakfast on the rooftop terrace of my hostel with a view of an occasionally smoking volcano. 😉

Relaxing at the Yellow House in Antigua, Guatemala

Relaxing at the Yellow House in Antigua, Guatemala

One of my favorite activities: relaxing / studying in the hammock. I couldn’t resist buying one to bring back home… I just have to find a place to put it since I live on the 12th floor of an big apartment building. 😉

My favorite breakfast: el típico

My favorite breakfast: el típico

Eating gluten-free or Paleo/Primal is actually very easy  in Guatemala and other Latin American countries. Here’s my favorite breakfast: eggs + fried plantains + corn tortillas + fresh cream + tea. I don’t really like beans/legumes so I just leave them…

View of La Merced from my room at the Yellow House in Antigua

View of La Merced from my room at the Yellow House in Antigua

This is the view of one of the many beautiful churches of Antigua from my room at the Yellow House hostel. The weather was perfect. A well-deserved break from the harsh Canadian winter!

Eating gluten-free is easy in Guatemala

Eating gluten-free is easy in Guatemala

Another easy gluten-free meal: chicken fajitas + corn tortillas + rice +salad. All REAL Food!

View of the Atitlán Lake, Panajachel, Guatemala

View of the Atitlán Lake, Panajachel, Guatemala

After these few days of quietness and time alone, I took a shuttle to Panajachel, a small town by the Atitlán Lake, where I would meet my classmates and start my volunteering mission.

Bringing a lot of donations to the clinic!

Bringing a lot of donations to the clinic!

Each of the 6 of us brought a suitcase or 2 of donated supplements that we carried all the way from Toronto to use at the clinic. A bit of everything including fish oils, prenatal vitamins, multivitamins as well as  many other specific nutrients, herbs and homeopathic remedies. That’s over 300 lbs of supplements to help us better help the community.

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Exploring one of the little towns around the Lake

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Local men talking at the church of Santiago

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chicken at the market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent our Sunday just exploring a bit of Panajachel and the surround towns since we knew we would be too busy to do so during the week!

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Doing our best to help our patients with the little resources available

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Home visits in Panajachel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working at clinic was hard work! Since I am fluent in Spanish, I translated everything back and forth between the patients and the other intern working with me. We took thorough but quick patient history, did a lot of physical examinations and came up with treatment plans that were easy to implement but effective for our patients. We saw people of all ages, from babies to elderly, with all kinds of medical problems.

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Long list of locals waiting at the day clinic we set up in the police station in San Juan, one of the little town across the lake from Panajachel

The people in Guatemala is the highlight of my trip. I’ve heard so many stories showing me the strength of these people. There was the story of this shuttle driver explaining how he was struggling working 2 jobs to provide for his family, working about 12 hours a day 7 days of the week for the ridiculous salary of  less than $300 a month. There was also the recurring stories of many women needing to supplement the familial income by selling food or souvenirs on the street. Working on their feet all days inhaling the toxic fumes of their stove. There was also the story of Thomas who had his whole family killed during the Guatemalan Civil War: the men shot with a shotgun and the women raped to death.

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Volunteering at the NMGH clinic in Panajachel, Guatemala

We saw so many different medical conditions that we might not see in Canada or the USA, or that we might see but not full-blown to the degree it can be here. For example, I saw a few very large foot and leg ulcers… so deep… some of which had been present for over 6 years! Many cases of malnutrition and anemia especially in children., including parasitic infection and many gastrointestinal complaints. A complete vaginal prolapse and pelvic inflammatory disease. Cases of Parkinson’s, arthritis,  headaches, back pain, marked scoliosis. Many cases of upper respiratory tract infections, pneumonia and bronchitis. Gastritis, acid reflux, gallstones, diabetes and hypertension. Hepatitis. Many skin rashes / infections. A big live insect living in a man’s ear for over 3 months.

There are just so many people in need of the most basic health care… but it’s unfortunately not accessible / affordable for the majority of Guatemalans.

What is amazing is that most of the people we saw, even the sick ones, were pretty happy overall. Probably happier than most of us in “developed” countries. We have so much, even the poorest of us, yet we don’t appreciate it. All we want is more and we work harder and longer days to try to get it. We don’t realize the value of the present. The value of quiet moments and precious minutes spent with our loved ones. Guatemalans have so little but they appreciate what they have.

<3 They were so grateful for our help. For the time we took to listen. And I was happy to do my very best in exchange of a smile. 😀

This was not my first experience volunteering (read a little about my past experience in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador)… and I feel it won’t be my last! 🙂

*** A special thank to everyone who supported me by getting a squat stool or SCOBYs from me.  <3