By Patricia Cosgrove MD.
I don my surgical scrubs and take the short walk uphill past towering mango trees and squat tin roofed buildings. It’s early morning, but the low wooden benches are already lined with today’s patients sitting shoulder to shoulder, a colorful mix of traditional huipiles and western wear. Children play in shady patches of grass. Other families arrive by noisy three-wheeled tuk tuks, Guatemala’s version of Uber.
This is my third year as a volunteer ophthalmologist at the Clinica Maxena in Santo Tomas la Union, Guatemala. I join others who have come for 8 years, 20 years, more than 30 years. Sheila McShane, a native of Butte, Montana, has lived in Guatemala and been with the clinic for nearly all of its fifty years in operation. The country has a long history of destabilization by government corruption, evidenced by the recent arrest and incarceration of the president, vice president, and top military officials just prior to our arrival. Sheila has committed her life to providing medical care to Guatemala’s most impoverished, the indigenous Quiche population. She oversees a full time medical clinic and coordinates Jornadas de Ojos, semi-annual rotations of visiting eye surgeons. I am honored to play a small role in her larger campaign.
Months prior to our Jornada, we solicit donations for medicine, supplies and equipment to stock the clinic and operating room. Creativity and the ability to improvise compensate for any gaps after our arrival. Local health care providers are enlisted to identify and refer patients for evaluation and treatment. The surgeries are far more difficult and the pathology far more complex than what we see in the United States. This week, our team sees more than 200 clinic patients and performs eye surgeries on more than thirty patients previously blind from cataracts. The work is challenging, gratifying. This year, we work with a Guatemalan ophthalmologist in training, giving us the opportunity to teach, the opportunity leave behind something more enduring than individual surgery alone.
As I walk through the outdoor waiting area, an obvious foreigner in scrubs, I venture to try some greetings in my mediocre Spanish, my rudimentary Quiche. I’m answered with the universal language of giggles and smiles. Inside the clinic, patients await surgery with the universal sense of apprehension. Postoperative patients have bandages removed, a shared sense of anticipation. Under the operating microscope, the anatomy of the eye is familiar ground. I’m thoroughly grateful to be reminded once again–it really is a small world.