17 Sept 2012
Through Asociación Pop Wuj I’ve seen several outreach programs that benefit from the enterprise of the Spanish school. Volunteers have built hundreds of stoves so that women no longer cook over open fires in their homes. Scholarships are awarded thus families can afford to send children to school. The clinic provides affordable healthcare, free if a patient is involved in one of the other programs. Community health workers assist patients and are the follow-through on various public health projects, such as midwife trainings and a nutrition program for young children.
Pop Wuj works with several communities to varying degrees. In some villages all of the above mentioned programs are ongoing. Others are far removed from Xela, beyond the reach of the mobile clinic or regular volunteers, so solely receive scholarships.
From these different communities Pop Wuj receives people for another program: Los pacientes crónicos or the chronic patients. Occasionally a worker or volunteer will encounter someone with a medical condition that needs continued support, like providing Depakote for a boy with epilepsy. Or someone who needs one or more surgeries that they cannot afford; the association will provide financial support and check on the family. Part of my volunteer work with Pop Wuj is helping with chronic patients.
One Monday morning I was tasked with taking Suceli and her mother Sara to a nearby lab. Suceli was four years old with a congenital heart condition. They were leaving that afternoon for UNICAR, the cardiovascular hospital in the capital where she was to have surgery the next day. Before admitting patients for scheduled surgeries, hospitals expect them to have brought the results of a panel of tests. Tests can range from a blood type and a chemistry panel to a stool analysis and a test for syphilis.
Mother and daughter had made the trip from their village to the school, where Suceli was playing with a puzzle while patiently waiting.
“Hola, soy Nicki,” I said to introduce myself. “I’m a volunteer with Pop Wuj and I’m here to take you to the lab.”
Sara gave me a right-cheek-to-right-cheek kiss, a customary greeting. Suceli hid behind her mother’s large traditional skirt.
After our secretary Isabel gave me the list of tests UNICAR wanted and the money to pay for them, we set out on foot. It was a rare sunny day for the Xela rainy season. Before long Sara stopped and crouched down on the sidewalk. Suceli immediately climbed onto her back. Sara whipped out a long piece of cloth and tied it around them both so that the younger girl wouldn’t fall. I offered to carry their bag but she wouldn’t let me.
While walking and talking I learned that only Sara and Suceli will be making the trip to Guatemala City. Suceli’s uncle already went to UNICAR three days ago to donate blood for her operation. The family had trouble finding other donors except for him. Sara went around their village asking neighbors, offering to pay for their transportation. However, they heard that an organization was sponsoring the surgery and wanted payments of up to 400 quetzales (USD $50).
Trying to digest this story left a sour taste in my mouth. At one point in the next few minutes I stole a glance at Suceli. The sight of her asleep on her mother’s back, tired from the hot day and perhaps her heart condition, unexpectedly coaxed a few drops of water from my eyes. I quickly tried to hide them. Watching Sara carry her daughter, positive and pleasant while telling me about her neighbors, made me angry.
As I was instructed, upon arriving at Laboratorio La Fe I asked for Doña Marta.
“I’m here for Pop Wuj with one of our chronic patients. She needs labs done for a surgery in Guate. Can we please have the discount?”
When she smiled her assent I handed her the UNICAR list. She totaled the cost and gave me the price after the discount.
The waiting room was large and spotless with clean white tile floors. In one corner stood a machine that dispensed free filtered water. Suceli guzzled down three small cups while we were waiting for an available technician.
I tried to learn more about Suceli’s heart condition, but Sara didn’t know anything beyond a Pop Wuj doctor detected a murmur that a UNICAR doctor said she needed surgery for. A problem in the US that’s a much bigger problem in Guatemala is doctors not educating patients and families enough about their health conditions: what they are, how they progress, and why certain measures – lifestyle changes, medications, surgeries – are important.
Once the technician was finished with the collection, Sara said they would be okay from here. They were going to wait for the results then go to the bus station.
“Ya sabe Ud. donde está?” Do you know where it is?
“Sí, Isabel me dio la dirección e instrucciones.” Yes, Isabel gave me the address and directions.
A cheek-to-cheek kiss was our farewell greeting as well, and this time I got a high-five and a wave from Suceli.
On my return to school I sought out Isabel because she knows everything. I asked about Sara’s neighbors asking for money to be blood donors.
“Eso es muy común.” That’s very common.
“Asking to be paid to help?”
“We tell our patients who need surgeries to keep it quiet that Pop Wuj is helping. When people hear that an “organization” is involved they think, ‘Ah, ellos tienen dinero; ellos pueden pagar.’” Oh, they have money; they can pay.
Isabel made a face where she slightly crinkled her nose and set her lips in a tight, straight line. I took it as an indication of her disapproval.
What prompts people, a mother’s neighbors, to ask for payment to help a sick child? Is it dire economic straits. Is it misconceptions about the resources of a faceless organization. Is it greed. My head tells me that it must be a combination of all of the above. I hope it is mostly the former; I fear it is more the latter.