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A Journey of Healing and Hope: Team 798’s Mission to Guatemala

The world often feels full of questions we don’t have the answers to, but one cuts through the noise: “How can we help?” Imagine a doctor with the skills to heal deep wounds and soothe hidden pain, yet they live a world away from a family desperate for relief. The gap between them isn’t just miles; it’s money, tangled healthcare systems, and the harsh reality that care is often limited. This question is a catalyst, a call to build bridges of compassion where systems have failed. That is the story of those who answer that call, proving that when determination and skill unite, health becomes a possibility–and a right–for everyone.

In early March 2024, Team 798, a dedicated group of US-based medical professionals embarked upon a mission of compassion fueled by a desire to serve and a deep respect for their Guatemalan partners. A team of dedicated professionals arrived in Antigua ready to provide essential healthcare and foster cross-cultural collaboration in the spirit of healing. Over five days, these volunteers serviced over a hundred patients, giving free/pay-what-you-can surgeries and improving the livelihoods of Guatemalan patients who had traveled far and wide to receive care.

Their effort is part of the remarkable work undertaken by Faith in Practice, a Texas-based non-profit bridging geographic and cultural divides for thirty years. They collaborate with over 1,100 international and 300 Guatemalan volunteers annually to provide procedures for over 17,000 Guatemalans. Faith in Practice recognizes that healthcare needs extend beyond the operating room. Their model prioritizes community empowerment, capacity building, and education, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Team 798 was founded by Oregon OB/GYN Dr. Jim Stempel and his Wife Mary Stempel, a labor and delivery nurse, in 2002. Their children, Tim, Katie, and Andrew, have all participated in these missions for years.
Linda L. McCarty, in a letter she wrote in 2021 when she served as CEO of Faith in Practice, recalls visiting the Stempel home with awe, noting the wall decorated with over sixty framed mission certificates honoring each family member’s contribution and participation. “[Those certificates] told stories of thousands of hugs, tears, laughter,” McCarty eloquently reflected, “friendships forged, lives shaped, and faiths deepened over decades of service.”

In 2024, Jim and Mary held back tears as they waved goodbye to the team at the Portland International Airport, proudly watching their son Tim and daughter Katie Stempel, a newly minted nurse practitioner, take on the leadership role with the help of surgeon Dr. Andrew Cramer and anesthesiologist Dr. Ross Martini. They brought a dedicated group of 34 medical volunteers—surgeons, nurses, technicians, and interpreters. Some had been coming for years, as evidenced by the necklaces adorned with jade beads, a Stempel tradition—each bead representing a year of service. This mix of veterans and newcomers is also part of the Stempel heritage, which emphasizes the importance of bringing new volunteers each year.

“You always have to have a quarter to a third of new people,” explains team leader Dr. Cramer, “even though you might have a whole team who wants to come back, you have to make room for new people because they remind you of how wonderful it is to be here. You see the wonder in their eyes and the joy of what they get to see and experience.”

Central to Team 798’s service is their collaboration with Obras Sociales Santo Hermano Pedro, known locally as Las Obras, an Antigua-based non-profit sharing the same commitment to serving marginalized communities. Founded by Fray Guillermo Bonilla, the hospital is a vital anchor for Faith in Practice.

Obras Sociales is a well-oiled machine, and its services and facilities are both modern and beautiful. It was built in the 1600s and has survived earthquakes, served various functions, and, through renovations and expansions, it has become a state-of-the-art medical center standing as a beacon of hope, with its 27 specialty clinics and 8 operating rooms. As you approach the warm yellow building, you can’t help but stop to appreciate its beauty. Inside, peaceful gardens and courtyards provide comfort for patients, families, and employees.

Dr. Karen Zink a surgeon and veteran volunteer, captured the essence of visiting Las Obras when she said early in the trip, “Going to [Las Obras] just felt like I was going home.”
This trip isn’t just about helping patients – it’s about coming home to a place where medicine can feel its purest. Witnessing patients who have endured pain and discomfort for years, even decades, recover from life-changing surgeries is profoundly moving.

The patients, many of whom travel long distances, receive care throughout their journey, which begins and ends outside the hospital walls. Faith in Practice provides transportation to Antigua and housing at Casa De Fe, a facility that provides lodging to patients and their family members before and after surgery—offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for sometimes up to two weeks—for free.

Visiting Casa De Fe, we met a patient who was on the road to recovery. Alba, a 43-year-old mother of three, hails from the island of La Gomera. For over two years, she suffered from a painful gallbladder condition that disrupted her daily life. “Se me inflamaba mucho en mi estómago y sentía como una pesadez en cierto lugar y continuamente tocaba para dormir.” (“My stomach would get very inflamed, and I felt heaviness in a certain place, and I would constantly massage it to sleep.”)

Alba struggled to get the necessary healthcare due to a lack of funds. Her hopes were renewed after hearing about Faith In Practice from a community leader. With the support of the organization, Alba traveled to Antigua and received the life-changing gallbladder surgery she desperately needed.

“Aquí me trataron muy bien ahí en el hospital. Muy bien. Excelente. No sentí nada,” Alba recalled, with relief and gratitude in her voice. (“They treated me very well in the hospital. Very good. Excellent. I didn’t feel anything.”) She expressed her heartfelt appreciation to everyone involved.

The success of Team 798’s mission rests in part on the tireless efforts of Faith in Practice’s Guatemalan community leaders. They traverse the country’s challenging terrain – from remote mountain villages to dense jungle communities – to identify those requiring care, often traveling by foot, horse, or mule. These leaders act as important bridges, navigating diverse communities and connecting those in need with essential healthcare services. “The community leaders become like family,” acknowledges Faith in Practice, highlighting the profound trust fostered within these unique relationships.

Erin Kracht-Jones, an eight-year veteran nurse based in Olympia, has a strong personal connection to the mission. It all started with her mother, who established a connection between Providence Hospital and Faith in Practice. Years later, Erin, then a nursing student, decided to join the mission. Over the years, Erin has witnessed the ripple effect of these missions: the gratitude of patients and the powerful connections forged amongst the team. They live together, eat together, and, importantly, share rituals that build bonds and make the mission all the more meaningful.

Each night over dinner, Team 798 participates in a Stempel tradition of “passing the spoon.” Using a large kitchen spoon as a makeshift microphone, volunteers take a moment to stand in front of their peers to share personal experiences from their day: empowering stories, profound insights, challenging obstacles, and humorous anecdotes. Through laughter and tears, the storytelling bonds the volunteers together. Who knew a kitchen spoon could be so powerful? Erin puts it simply: “It brings us together so much more.”

Early in the week, Firen Rose Towanda, an Oregon-based ICU nurse on her first Faith in Practice mission, held the spoon tightly as she shared a guiding story that has helped her through her career. When the work weighs heavily, she’s reminded of a little boy on a beach who sees stranded starfish and throws them back into the sea, one by one. When his father urges him to stop, claiming it doesn’t matter, the boy throws one more back. When asked why, he replies, ‘It mattered to that one.’ She carries this simple wisdom through difficult moments. Volunteering in the post-anesthesia care unit, she and her fellow colleague’s compassion and empathy are essential tools. The simple act of holding a patients hand to ensure their comfort in these moments mean everything, and her story reminds us that sometimes the smallest gestures have the most profound impact.

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10)

“Pues, ¿quién despreciará el día de las pequeñeces? Estos siete se alegrarán al ver la plomada en la mano de Zorobabel…” (Zacarías 4:10)

This year, Team 798 wasn’t alone on their mission—they collaborated with local surgeons and medical staff at Las Obras. “I’m always learning,” explains Team 798 surgeon Dr. Kelvin Yu, who mentored Obras hospital surgeons in performing thyroid surgery. Yu emphasized the reciprocal nature of the partnership, exchanging knowledge and learning from one another.

Team 798 also had the distinct honor of working alongside Faith in Practice’s first Guatemala-based volunteer medical team led by Dr. Jorge Enrique Méndez. The Méndez team represents a landmark achievement for the organization.

“[Team 798] have been very nice to us and very open,” Dr. Juan Carlos Zea, a Guatemala City-based gynecologist explains, “they offer to explain what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, and why.” The exchange is mutual, Zea says, “they come to our rooms the same way that we go to theirs.”

Dr. Ty Erickson, a surgeon specializing in urogynecology, works with several humanitarian organizations and dedicates several weeks out of the year to care for underserved populations around the world. Erickson applauds Faith In Practice’s emphasis on local cooperation. US-based medical volunteers work alongside Guatemala medical volunteers and Obras hospital staff to ensure follow-up and continuity of care in the weeks and months after surgery. The impact is undeniable.

“Most of my patients live four hours away, what happens if they need care next week?” Faith In Practice infrastructure and community leaders help facilitate care long after mission teams are gone.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10
“Cada uno ponga al servicio de los otros el don que haya recibido, como buenos administradores de la multiforme gracia de Dios.” – 1 Peter 4:10

Faith In Practice’s inclusive approach welcomes all, regardless of specific religious beliefs, embracing the shared humanity of those who volunteer and those who receive care. “God is working healing miracles in all of our lives as we come together to serve,” the organization reflects.

This focus on spiritual well-being extends to all, as Faith in Practice welcomes patients and volunteers of “all religious beliefs, gender, race or ethnicity.” It’s not about a specific religion but about a shared faith–a belief in a higher power, the human experience, or simply the conviction that helping others makes a difference.

This shared understanding of faith unites Team 798’s volunteers, who come from various backgrounds and work together to serve. Through Faith in Practice, they work together to ensure that those in need receive the care they deserve, and their faith, in its various forms, empowers them.

For team leader Dr. Andrew Cramer, these missions broaden his faith, “My window into the world of faith has been Jesus. I’m not saying there are no other windows, but that’s been my window. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand.’ Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said, ‘For the spirit of the Lord is upon me. And he’s called me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing of the blind and the restoration of the lame, and to proclaim the favor of the year of the Lord.’”

“What He’s saying is that the Kingdom of God is when a community comes together and brings freedom to people. That could be physical freedom, it could be spiritual freedom, wholeness, and health, and that’s the Kingdom of God. It’s not someplace far away that we die, and we get to, but it’s right here, right now. That is heaven on earth, to be in a community of people that work together and in love, bring health and wholeness to others.”

Cramer’s message is exemplified by a patient who wanted a photo with the team to reassure others in her community that the Faith In Practice medical services were safe and welcoming. Later, when the surgeons checked in on her recovery, the patient pulled up the picture and declared, “You are my angels.”

-Zachary Carlsen