“AAMC Staff and HELPS International: Reaching Out to Children in Need” by Stephanie Thompson, R.N.
On February 9, 2010 Lynn Buckingham, R.N., John Avallone, M.D., and I arrived in San Cristobal, Guatemala. We arrived to a crowd of hundreds—people waiting in line to see the American doctors and nurses who were working with HELPS International to provide much needed health care to their community. Our van passed through the crowd and, once at the gate, we were greeted by roughly 20 children and their families–all clapping and cheering as we approached.
We had come to provide surgery to children who suffered from strabismus, a condition in which both eyes do not look at the same point at the same time. Without surgery many of these children would face a lifetime of challenges.
After severe snow storms had twice delayed our flight from Baltimore and threatened to cancel our trip, we arrived four days behind the rest of the medical team. We had spent the last four hours driving on the winding mountain roads from Guatemala City and had been up since 4:00 a.m.
However, as we climbed out of the van–tired and weary from travel–I began to sense a change in the team and myself. Relief washed over me as I put my feet on the ground and began walking toward the line of children. I saw so many smiling faces–children started shaking our hands and hugging my fellow team members. I began to feel both urgency and excitement—the stress we faced getting to this small spot on the globe began to fade.
I looked in front of me and my eyes fell on a little girl who was maybe three or four years old. Her eyes were obviously crossed and she had to tilt her head to look and me. I knew then that even if we had traveled to perform surgery on only one of these children, it would have been worth it. We took a quick picture as a group and then set off to work.
With over 60% of the population in Guatemala living below the poverty line, HELPS International is the major health care provider for the country. For many people in the country of Guatemala, a visit from a HELPS team is their only chance at health care. In San Cristobal, there had not been a medical team in their hospital for over four years.
A father of a surgical patient we saw told us he had been out of work for months and had no money to help his son, but because we were there, his son could finally see normally. He thanked us for coming.
Dr. Avallone, Lynn Buckingham, and I performed surgery on 23 patients in the three days we were there. The team we were working with, consisting mostly of general surgeons, primary medical doctors, podiatrists, dentists, and many fantastic nurses, performed 161 surgeries and attended to 1,453 patients in 5 days.
We are humbled that we could go and help the beautiful people of Guatemala. We’re grateful to those at AAMC who donated and purchased baked goods from the bake sale, supporting our trip. We’re home now but a piece of our heart is still in Guatemala. We brought them health care, but they gave us so much more.