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Pogo Antigua Mission Trip

This is a calling. A purpose that must be fulfilled. In a way I have no choice but to come back. Guatemala is now my home, and the people are now my family.


Saturday, May 11: The Journey

The world changes when individuals come together for a purpose. Strangers become friends, and friends become family. This week 29 individuals unite to make a change in the lives of people in Antigua, Guatemala.

This is my second time traveling to Guatemala with Faith in Practice, but my first time in Antigua. Again, the nerves and anticipation of the unknown arise, but I learned from my first tripthat through faith and teamwork, there is nothing to fear. The team, stewarded by long-time Faith in Practice volunteer Dr. Pogo, arrived safely in Guatemala City eager to fulfill the calling and purpose that tugs at our hearts. Most of us have walked this path before, but for a handful, this will be their first time. I’m excited to follow their journey and see their story unfold.

Guatemala is filled with amazing people who have their own stories to tell. I’m thrilled to join this team of healthcare professionals in their efforts to give patients their lives back, and it’s an immense honor to be able to give a voice to them all.


Sunday, May 12: Patients and Patience

Today is the team’s first day at Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro Hospital. We are excited to get started on our mission. Chaplain Dennis begins with the daily devotional. Today’s focus is on our worldviews. Dennis explains that we all bring our own individual worldview with us, and we need to understand how our own views fit within Guatemalan culture to create a space that is not only tolerant but welcoming for everyone, patients and team members alike. This will be an ongoing process and we need patience with ourselves and others.

We head out for the five-minute walk to the hospital ready to see what awaits. The ENT, general, orthopedic and gynecology surgeons, and anesthesiologist head to the clinic to prepare for a day of consultations to set the surgery schedules for the week. As we arrive there, we see patients already lined up to be seen. Each one patiently hopeful for treatment, but the reality is not everyone will be accepted for surgery. Some people will have medical issues too complex for the capabilities of the facility and equipment on site. Others won’t be accepted because the schedules have already been filled. Those patients will receive referrals and will have to wait for a future team.

Gynecology Surgeons Drs. Bathke and Jenkin had to break that news to a woman who isn’t a good candidate for surgery, and the disappointment was instantly visible in her face and body.

“In my heart I know I’m doing the right thing,” Dr. Bathke said. “We want the procedure to be effective and not put them through unnecessary surgery that won’t help them. Explaining this can be harder here because of language barriers, education levels and the very limited access to healthcare.”

In stark contrast are the patients who do get approved for surgery. Smiles, laughter and hope overcome any fear or trepidation they may feel.

During a consultation by General Surgeon Dr. Ongstad, a patient was scheduled for a gall bladder removal. This was early in the scheduling, so the week was still fairly open. When Dr.Ongstad asked what day she wanted to have the surgery, she immediately exclaimed, “¡Mañana!¡Mañana!” She will have her surgery tomorrow.

While the doctors continue to see patients, the rest of the team is busy unpacking supplies to setup the four operating rooms, pharmacy and post-anesthesiology unit (PACU). Today was long, but we feel prepared for day one of surgery.


Monday, May 13: Adapt and Overcome

Surgery day is here. After we nourish our bodies with breakfast, we return to the devotional to nourish our souls. Dr. Pogo reminds us of the team motto, “Adapt and Overcome.” We will face challenges, but if we work together to find solutions, we will rise above and continue forward.

Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Ali demonstrated the team motto today when a shoulder scope case turned into a rotator cuff repair after he was able to see what the x-rays didn’t show.

“We don’t have the same diagnostic tools here as we do in the U.S., so we make a diagnosis and plan for a surgery based on what we know at the time,” Dr. Ali said. “We have to make a split-second decision because the next time they see a surgeon may be in one or two years.”

Although doing rotator cuff surgery will prolong the recovery time, it will better alleviate her pain and greatly improve her functionality to play with her kids and return to work so she can provide for her family. And that’s the overarching theme of this mission. To get people the surgeries they need to get back to their lives. A basic need that is not taken for granted here.


Tuesday, May 14: Beauty

“Let us see the beauty every day and source our lives from its presence.” – Laurence Cole

“Where did you find beauty yesterday?” Chaplain Dennis asked at devotional. “Where did you see it? Where did you feel it?”

Emily, our team doctor, said she saw beauty in the kindness, gratitude and positivity of the patients after they woke up in the PACU.

“These people just had major abdominal surgeries and they wake up from anesthesia with smiles for us,” she said. “There were so many “thank yous” and “God bless yous. It is humbling and heartwarming.”

I spoke with a couple patients this morning who arrived in Antigua together with matching ACL injuries. They traveled 12 hours by bus from the northern most part of Guatemala. A long ride even when you’re not in pain. They were referred for surgery by a Faith in Practice village team last year. This is their second knee surgery. They both had meniscus repairs last May, and this year Dr. Ali will work on the ligaments doing a full ACL repair. The injury has frustrated them because they can’t even walk a block without pain.

“We are people who like to be athletic,” said Irbin, who injured his knee playing soccer. “We love to exercise by running, gymnastics, mountain climbing and sports. That’s who we are, and we can’t do those things anymore.”

Erika injured her knee playing basketball and said she just wants to live a normal life.

“I want to live a normal life for my three kids,” she said. “It’s really hard to do normal activities when I’m in so much pain. It may be vanity, but the most important things are my kids and the quality of life I can give them. To do this with a surgeon at a private hospital would be very expensive.”

Thanks to Faith in Practice and the orthopedics team, they will have the opportunity to get back to the activities they love without pain, and that is beauty.


Wednesday, May 15: Casa de Fe

It’s already Wednesday! We only have two more days of surgery left. The days have been long, some lasting more than 12 hours, but the week is flying by.

The surgeons rounded on their patients from yesterday, and all have progressed well. Erika and Irbin are in high spirits and little pain from their ACL surgeries. They will be released today to make the long journey home. Just like Erika and Irbin, some patients travel for many hours with no means to pay for a hotel or hostel. They stay in Antigua for up to eight days. Faith in Practice cares for these patients at Casa de Fe, a 100-bed guest house in Antigua.

Patients and one family member have access to clean beds, meals and snacks, and can recover in the safety and comfort of the facility at no cost. I was told patients used to sleep in the streets onthe nights before surgery, or they would ride home in the back of trucks after their procedures because they had no money for a hotel or food. Casa de Fe’s opening in 2003 gave people dignity and safety while they await much needed surgeries. Casa de Fe is funded by contributions from generous donors who make so much difference to the lives of so many.


Thursday, May 16: Gratitude and Grace

We made it to the final day of surgery. Otolaryngologist Dr. Pogo rounded on a little girl who had a biopsy done yesterday. Three-year-old Genesis came to Dr. Pogo with a suspicious bump on her upper chest area. Her mother said it’s been there for about a year. The bump is painful and has grown. They went to see a doctor at a village clinic and were referred to the surgery team in hopes it can be surgically removed.

The bump is hard like a rock and is quite painful. When Dr. Pogo felt it, Genesis had tears welling up in her eyes. After looking at the x-ray, Dr. Pogo could see the full extent of the mass, which is located in the area behind the chest wall and above the heart. The mass is spread across her chest wall and is pushing into her trachea causing her airway to narrow. It is also eating into her clavicle. Dr. Pogo took a biopsy, but it will take three weeks for the results to come back. He suspects lymphoma. There is no surgical option for her. If the results come back malignant, she will be referred to a National Hospital’s pediatric oncologist, but the hospital is many hours awayfrom where they live, and the treatment is expensive.

I first met Genesis in pre-op. She was so tiny laying in that big bed. Her mom was sitting next to her trying to soothe her cries. I knelt beside her bed and reached out my hand. She placed her hand in mine, and I gently stroked her skin. As we sat together, I noticed some bumps on her hand. I was told it’s a fungus, and a lot of children in rural areas have it from constantly playing and working in the soil in cornfields.

“Genesis touched my heart with how brave she was during this process,” said Dani, a pediatric PACU Nurse. “It’s so hard not being able to see this case through to the end. She is an angel.”

There are many angels here in Guatemala, and I wish I could tell each one’s story. Stories of courage, family, hope and healing.

So, we will come back to continue the journey and fulfill our purpose.

*The team completed 72 total surgeries

-Shari Lau