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Giving back: St. Paul’s volunteers return from Guatemala humanitarian mission

Hospital hallway with patients lined up and others sitting with volunteers.
Patients at Las Obras hospital in Antigua, Guatemala wait to see members of the Health for Humanity volunteer team. @Badzak Creative

The big, beaming smile and hug for St. Paul’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tom Goetz sum it all up. Just one year ago, Bryan, a 23 year old motorcycle mechanic from Antigua, Guatemala, was facing the real possibility of amputation of his chronically infected right arm, injured in a motorbike crash. Today, it’s fully functional.

Dr. Goetz, just back from the Health for Humanity (H4H) mission in Guatemala, says out of the hundreds of patients the team treated, Brian’s case has been one of the most memorable. “There is no EI, no disability in Guatemala. To be able to get Bryan back to work is lifesaving.”

Patient Bryan smiling as he holds out arm for Dr. Tom Goetz.

Bryan shows off his fully healed arm to St. Paul’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tom Goetz. @Badzak Creative

Volunteers from St. Paul’s give up their vacation time to help

Several St. Paul’s doctors and nurses volunteered their time and paid their own way to take part in the most recent medical mission in November. Many of them have been involved in the charitable organization for years, which is centred at the Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro Hospital in Antigua.

Dr. Ang Li examins a patient at Las Obras Hospital in Guatemala. @Badzak Creative

Dr. Joe Del Vicario, anesthesiologist, has been on every trip and is now in his 12th year as Medical Lead. “About ninety per cent of physicians return. That speaks volumes about the experience. It’s really challenging at times, but so rewarding.”

During this year’s three-week mission, 93 volunteers – primarily from the Lower Mainland and the rest of B.C. –  performed more than 350 surgeries. The majority of the surgeries were orthopedics and cleft lips/palates.

Some of the smiling faces waiting outside a Health for Humanity clinic in Guatemala. @Badzak Creative

Melissa Reynolds, a Registered Nurse in the Cardiac Surgery ICU, helps look after the patients pre and post surgery. “Often with our cleft palate babies, you’ll see the baby come back and moms will start crying. It’s definitely life-changing.”

For the first time, the team also partnered with local physicians to set up seven rural primary care clinics in higher elevation villages outside Antigua. Almost a thousand patients, mostly women and children, patiently waited in lines outside their local elementary schools to get care.

Humanitarian organization provides more than just health care

H4H’s work around one of the poorest country in the Americas isn’t limited to health care. It also supports a local social enterprise to provide water filters to schools for a reliable source of clean drinking water. There is another partnership with a coffee grower to give scholarships to children of employees.

This was Dr. Raja Rajamohan’s first time participating in a mission. The anesthesiologist is already planning to go back next year. “You have to be there to understand how privileged we are. There are millions of people around the world who lack basic health care.”

Volunteers from the Health for Humanity medical mission in Guatemala. @Badzak Creative

In Bryan’s case, for example, after he badly fractured his arm in the motorbike crash in May 2018, he and his family took out a huge loan to have local surgeons repair it. The doctors didn’t use the right plates and Bryan’s arm became badly infected. That meant he was not able to return to work. The H4H team first saw him last November and removed the bad plates. Then Dr. Goetz returned to Antigua on a special trip five months later to place new plates, donated by a Canadian company. Just a few weeks ago, Bryan arm wrestled Dr. Del Vicario at his follow-up visit.

“The old adage that you get more our of life by giving is one of those things that is truly the essence of happiness,” says Dr. Del Vicario. “At the end of each day in Guatemala, I can say, ‘I’ve done something good here today.'”

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