Our Trip to Guatemala With HELPS International

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

It takes a real effort these days to maintain the connection between doctors and patients. Hurdles now exist when doctors and patients attempt to interact and build a mutual, uncomplicated and trusting relationship. Bureaucratic red tape from hospitals and regulatory agencies, insurance companies, with their rules and paperwork, well meaning support staff, well meaning family members and friends, information and misinformation on the internet, television advertisements, legal impediments and the constant threat of malpractice lawsuits are but a few of the impediments to the delivery of care and the return of the patient to health and well being.

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Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork diminish the mutual trust between doctors and patients and decrease the time spent healing diseases.

Surgeons & Doctors at HELPS Trip Guatemala
Surgeons & Doctors at HELPS Trip Guatemala

My son Jordan, a surgical resident at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and I, recently traveled to Guatemala on a medical and surgical relief mission under the auspices of HELPS International. HELPS is a non-profit organization dedicated to the care of Guatemalans who have no access to medical care.

In a country where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is huge, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders and that I could breathe easily while I put my medical and surgical skills to work.

The diseases that I treated seemed to represent the worst stage of illness in each disease category; huge thyroid tumors, diseased gall bladders, severe, bilateral breast disease, large, painful hernias, disfiguring and painful hand cysts, painful lumps and bumps to name a few. Other specialists were confronted with cleft lips and cleft palates, gigantic uterine fibroids, cervical cancer, parathyroid disease, enlarged tonsils, rotten teeth and many other afflictions. Curing required smart and talented anesthesiologists, ENT’s, gynecologists, head and neck surgeons, general surgeons, plastic, reconstructive surgeons, dentists and internists. To even get to the stage of curing, we required highly skilled nurses, translators, pharmacists, chefs, maintenance personnel (we called these multitalented people our MacGyvers, as they could fix just about everything with duct tape and a screwdriver), runners, secretaries and a bunch of other wonderful souls whose jobs I never did understand. Our world was flat. One world of equals all working together. But, had there been a pecking order, Jordan and I would have most surely been on the bottom of it as we were new members to the group and certainly the most wide-eyed.

Let me hasten to add that the entire group of about 90 volunteers (physicians and lay people), were the finest group of dedicated friends that could ever be assembled. The equipment was as fine as we could ask for. The pool of talent and caring was as deep as that found in any major United States hospital, and the cure rates would rival any  in the world.

The days were exceedingly long, the cots were hard, the line of patients was endless and our smiles and sense of satisfaction were unrivaled by anything I can recall.

Nothing came between a patient and his or her care. Patients were greeted, evaluated and treated almost immediately. The connection was direct and visceral. It struck me as almost humorous that we were able to correctly diagnose and swiftly treat all maladies with a minimal amount of testing.  No CT scans. Imagine that. I was able to practice the purest form of medicine. My reward was the purest form of satisfaction. What our group enabled me to do was deliver my talents in a way that I was taught to do in my training years. Memories brought back to the forefront of my life.

For my efforts, I received two rewards. The first reward was the smiles, the sincere smiles, and the looks of thanks from my patients. Smiles and thanks from the heart. Direct, deeply delivered and received.

The second reward was more of a surprise to me. I remembered how to say thanks in return. I owe a debt of appreciation to my Guatemalan patients and friends for reminding me of the nature of giving and for reminding me how our minds, hands and hearts, when working together, can heal. Pure healing. Pure joy. I remembered how to feel deep thanks and how to deliver those words of thanks from my heart.

To my Guatemalan patients: Thanks so much.


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