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Teamwork. Togetherness. Unity. Service. Faith. So many words come to mind as I collect my thoughts from the previous eight days in Guatemala with the 790 Balduf/Sullivan Surgery Team. It’s pretty interesting being the blogger and photographer for a surgical mission, particularly when you have zero medical background. Everything is so new: a new country with an unfamiliar language, a new medical vocabulary, working to gain the trust of people you’ve never before met with the hopes of their candid response to your questions. Donning scrubs and seeing a surgery for the first time. So much newness.

It’s clear from day one that our team is in this together. There are many volunteers with multiple trips under their belts…some have even started to lose count of how many times they’ve been. Others, like me, are completely new. But we’re all there for a singular purpose, and there’s no doubt that we can rely on each other.

“I love the way they [Faith in Practice] run the mission,” says Lorene, the chaplain in the group, who is on her sixth Faith in Practice mission. “I have a little bit of background in public health, and so I love the way that the village health workers are trained to manage chronic disease and monitor patients. So even if you identify someone with a chronic disease, they still get care even after you leave. That was really important to me.”

We arrived in Retalhuleu on Saturday evening, and after a brief tour of Hospital Hilario Galindo, retired to our hotel to have dinner and rest for the long days ahead.

Clinic day was met with a combination of apprehension and excitement. Within the hospital, there was much work to do setting up supplies and prepping ORs for the difficult work to come. And at the front of the hospital was where the patient work began: nearly 80 patients were seen that day, with doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and translators assessing who they could help. There was hope in the eyes of every patient, many of whom had lived with pain for years.

Every patient I spoke to that day was so incredibly grateful. Without fail, they expressed their thanks to God and the Faith in Practice team that made their surgeries possible.

Faith. It’s perhaps the most amazing thing after witnessing the great need of so many people. The Guatemalan people have an unbreakable faith in God, trusting implicitly that He will provide. By all accounts, they live very difficult lives. Agricultural work is common, and you can see on their sun-lined faces that it’s not easy. Long days of back-breaking work for very little money, yet there is not a word of complaint. On the contrary, there is a thankfulness to God and a contentment for every blessing, from food on their tables to the health of their families, that make them seem rich in every sense.

I met a man named Vicente waiting while his wife Zoila underwent gallbladder surgery, and he told me a bit about their life. Vicente was a sugarcane harvester, earning about 250 quetzales (roughly $33) every two weeks. Despite their hard life, he and Zoila have a happy 55-year marriage, with four children, many grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.

“We don’t have anywhere else to get what we need except trusting in God,” says Vicente, emphasizing that every day they wake up and give thanks. “We don’t have anything else to ask God for. Truly.”

The next day when I bumped into Vincente, he was all smiles as he waited for Zoila to be discharged. Zoila’s pesky gallbladder, now removed, would no longer be causing her pain.

The next four days were filled with similar stories. Some of the families I spoke with had multiple family members assisted by Faith in Practice. One such family was Torivia and Alberto Gomez. While Torivia was waiting for Alberto to finish surgery for a hernia he’s been living with for two years, we had the chance to speak. Torivia and Alberto were pastors from Los Ángeles, Retalhuleu, and were building a church in their community.

When asked how she and Alberto were able to connect with Faith in Practice for Alberto’s surgery, she revealed that she had bladder surgery through FIP two years prior. “It’s a life-changing experience,” she says with a smile.

As pastors, Torivia and Alberto see firsthand the effect that these medical missions have on the people of their community. She has nothing but praise for the Faith in Practice volunteers that come year after year. Their work, she says, is so important because in Guatemala, most people do not have the means to afford these surgeries.

“Without Faith in Practice, so many of these people would die,” says Torivia. “Access to surgical care is a luxury that few can afford.”

Indeed, not just surgery, but basic medical care is a luxury that few here can afford. I had the honor of meeting Luvia Ramirez, a Faith in Practice volunteer from Jalapa, Guatemala, who had organized a group of 23 patients that traveled eight hours to receive surgical treatment.
Luvia described the need for medical care as never-ending. “Sometimes people are too poor, they have to work every day, and they don’t pay attention to their health. They are so busy providing for their families that they forget to be mindful of their own health. And the economic factor is huge, because health care here is very expensive, and poverty in Guatemala is very real.”
Her work as a volunteer can be stressful, too. “There are a lot of people in need, and it’s hard to pick and choose who you can help, because what I have learned is that not every specialty comes every time,” said Luvia.
By the end of Thursday, the Balduf/Sullivan Surgery 790 Team had operated on a total of 71 patients. Whereas many of the surgeries were straight-forward, many were unusually complex: multiple procedures on the same patient, or particularly large hernioplasties. Most days the team left well after dark. But long days meant more life changing surgeries, and the team was more than happy with their work.

There simply aren’t enough words to describe how meaningful this trip was, not only to the patients, but to the 31 members of our team. Just as the patients were grateful to receive care, our team was equally grateful to be in the position to give it. For many on the team, service like this was the very reason they got into medicine.

“People ask me why I went to med school,” said Brooke, a doctor on our team. “It wasn’t because I needed money or really wanted to go get a job. It was because I recognized my gifts and the needs of the world met up in medicine, and it’s my opportunity to do the good that I have to do.”

Mission co-leader Ann agrees: “God keeps opening more and more opportunities for me to step out in faith and continue to give…I think that’s why in the last few years it’s evolved into multiple missions with organizations, especially with Faith in Practice.”

When someone tells you these missions are life changing, believe them. There’s a reason volunteers return time and time again. “You go to be a blessing, but you always end up feeling more blessed in return than anything you could ever give,” says Ann.

On behalf of the Balduf/Sullivan Surgery 790 Team, thank you to our donors and the countless local staff and volunteers who made this trip possible. We’ll be back again soon.

–Sue O.