The warm sunlight came filtering through the jacaranda tree in the central courtyard and the scent of roses filled the air as we left our hotel room and wandered across to meet the members of our team for our first breakfast together in Antigua, Guatemala. This stunningly beautiful town in the central highlands has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and tourists from all over the world flock here for a few days before taking off to see the great Mayan ruins at Tikal or Lake Atitlan which is often compared to Lake Como in Italy.
This was my wife Rose's and my fourth visit to Guatemala with a Project Hands surgical team and we would be leaving the luxury of Antigua the following morning for 9 days to experience a different Guatemala than the ones the tourists see.
Our home away from home for the next 9 days was to be in men's and women's separate dormitories in a retreat just outside the small market town of San Juan de Sacatepequez. The complex was surrounded by a high wall with razor wire along the top and on our arrival the driver rang the bell, the huge gates swung open to let us in and then were quickly closed again.
Guatemala is still recovering from a 36 year long civil war that ended in 1996 but many of the people still bear the physical and emotional scars of those terrible years. The people our surgical group came to help were some of the indigenous Mayans who lived in small villages tucked away in the highlands where there are no social services available to help them.
During the Civil War 646 towns and villages were razed to the ground and the future doesn't look too promising with the newly elected president, a former general who led the country's shock troops (the kaibiles), in areas where the UN later found genocide to have taken place.
There were 24 of us in the group supporting a general and a gynecological surgeon who between them performed 59 operations during our stay, ranging from hernias and gall bladders to hysterectomies. Prior to our arrival a Project Hands triage team consisting of two doctors and two nurses had visited small isolated villages to determine suitable candidates for the procedures we could offer.
It was fascinating to talk to the other team members to see what it was that brought us all together and hear about their experiences in other parts of the world. There was one nurse who worked in Haiti 12 days after the earthquake and a Guatemalan doctor at the hospital in which we worked who was there at the height of the cholera epidemic when 1500 people were crammed into a tent meant to house 500.
I worked with a 28 year old Guatemalan girl in the admin. section of the hospital whose father had disappeared during the civil war. He was a law student and her mother a medical student at the time the government were targeting teachers and law students, because of the influence they thought they could have on the population.
People were still very reticent to talk about the Civil War for fear of being heard and something happening to them, although one woman talked about finding the body of her brother on the street one morning when she was a teenager. We found from previous trips that the usual response people had to being questioned was “Oh yes it was bad in other parts of the country but nothing much happened here”.
We were advised not to walk on the streets of the town alone and the doctor in charge of the hospital wasn't even comfortable with that because of the fear of someone being grabbed and held for ransom.
However, one morning in the bus on the way to work we had an opportunity to stop and walk together as a group in the flower and vegetable market. It was like stepping back in time and made Granville market seem like somewhere from another planet, especially when a religious procession passed us with the men bent under the weight of the float carrying a replica of the crucifixion.
Another day while our minibus was briefly parked in town, out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a giant iguana scurrying across the street through the traffic. To my horror on second glance I saw that it was a woman whose legs were missing just below the knees and she was using her arms to drag herself along the road. The speed she was going was quite amazing and one wondered how many years she had been in this awful situation and the accident that must have occurred to put her in this position.
Of all the patients we operated on the one who probably made the biggest impression was the 47 year old woman with a growth on the end of her nose, which resembled a large purple and brown mushroom. The growth had gradually increased in size over a period of 7 years and now was such that she couldn't see to walk in a straight line. Prior to the operation to remove it she walked in a somewhat crablike manner since she couldn't see over or around it and when it was finally removed took over a day to adjust to being able to see straight ahead again. Two months after our trip another Project Hands team with two plastic surgeons in it was able to perform skin grafts on the area affected by the growth
It was being able to help patients like this and others who had spent years unable to lead a normal life that made the trip to Guatemala so rewarding for all members of the team.
Several of the young nurses were using up their summer holidays to join us and found it difficult to afford the airfares and cost of accommodation that all team members had to pay. However when the trip was over everyone was talking about wanting to be members of the same team when they return to Guatemala again. As one 23 year old male team member told us “This trip has really changed my life”
We feel very privileged to have been invited to play a small part in helping in the operation and running of Project Hands, which George and Barbara Maryniak and their daughter Tanya started 6 years ago. During that time our triage teams have seen 3,634 potential patients of which 1,515 needed surgery. Our surgical teams have performed 642 operations and a total of 330 people have given up their time to be part of a team. Although this is only “a drop in the bucket” it has helped to change the lives of people who by chance of birth have lives less fortunate than our own.
There are now 7 people from Lions Bay serving on the board, plus several others who have either been on a trip or are doing behind the scenes work involved in putting a trip together. If you feel that you have something to offer and would like to be part of an organization run entirely by volunteers with no paid staff , have a look at our website; www.projecthands.org and if it appeals to you send us an email at:
Please mark Sunday May 26th on your calendars now. More updates can be obtained here or through the Art Council website: Link to Lions Bay Art Council website