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DATELINE: Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Ashley and I woke at 6:30 and quickly got dressed to meet everyone else downstairs by 7. Butch and Andrew were there already, but soon the rest of the team came down to join us.

We found that ordering breakfast was more difficult than we had anticipated. Actually, the ordering wasn’t really a major problem, as we just pointed to the continental breakfast on the menu and the waitress nodded her understanding, so even the language barrier wasn’t an issue. Getting the food in a timely fashion, however, was. I guess it’s another incident of Gringo Time expectations, but 20 minutes crawled by and we’d seen no food.

While we waited, I used the hotel’s complementary high speed internet access to jot a few notes to folks back home to let them know we’d arrived safely, albeit not without some life-threatening incidents.

It was 7:20 before we received our continental breakfast, bowls of nice fresh fruit. I think we had somehow been expecting muffins and jelly, or something similar. However, we would learn the following day that the continental breakfast changed every day, so whenever we ordered it we would get something different every time. The fruit was great stuff, but not as filling as we’d hoped to get to start us on what was to be a busy day.

Jo Ann and Sylvana arrived right on time at 7:30, with Sylvana’s van and Tito’s truck, once again piled high with all of our supplies luggage as well as a large set of metal shelves just perfect for the pharmacy. We climbed back into Sylvana’s van and then had to hold on for dear life as she zipped into San Salvador’s morning rush hour with a recklessness that Marcello would have greatly admired. We didn’t care. We didn’t even put on our seatbelts, figuring that she knew what she was doing and we were otherwise on a mission from God so we’d be fine.

My impression from the previous night that San Salvador was nearly indistinguishable from most large American cities continued to bear itself out. Mostly. In the day light, of course, we could see more of the tell-tale signs of being in a central American country, such as more guards with shotguns. However, the guards with shotguns seemed to be primarily guarding things like banks and other important structures and not so much average places like McDonalds. There were lots of people riding bicycles and motorcycles, seemingly on their way to work in this busy urban sprawl.

We had been told that our clinic site would be in a very poor neighborhood in San Salvador and that we would be setting up in a school. Being some distance away and our van being in heavy traffic, it took around a half hour to drive there. During the journey, I kept hearing a curious buzzing noise from outside the van. It didn’t sound like a sound being made by the van, though. Instead, it sounded exactly like the buzzing of cicadas—a sound I knew well from having grown up in Mississippi.

Eventually, we left the city streets and began traveling through a more residential section of town where the homes began to resemble some of those we had seen in Pasaco. Then, in the midst of the neighborhood, we came to a large new building surrounded by chain-link fencing topped with razor-wire. At first I thought this must be the school, but then we drove past it. I was told later that this building was a brand new neighborhood medical clinic. It was so new, in fact, that they were having their dedication ceremony the following day. It made me wonder what good we could do in the neighborhood if there was already such a nice looking clinic. Later, Jo Ann told us that even though the neighborhood clinic is there, completed and soon to be dedicated, they don’t actually have any doctors or medication and aren’t expected to actually open at any point in the foreseeable future. Strange. It’s as if they had just enough money to build the building, but not enough to actually staff it and supply it.

At last we arrived at our own clinic site. It was a cluster of three small brightly painted buildings that comprised the grounds of a pre-school that was located next door to a beautiful church. Outside of it were dozens of people, most of them seated in plastic patio chairs.

The other thing I noticed as I exited the van was the distinct buzzing of insects in the trees above—particularly in the tree directly outside the building. Yep, I had been right; they were cicadas. But not just any cicadas, no these were gigantic monster cicadas that would have terrified the wussy little Mississippi cicadas I grew up with. Their collective buzzing was practically a roar.

We quickly unloaded our equipment and luggage and carried it into the cluster of buildings. There were only a handful of rooms in the pre-school’s complex of small buildings, divided by an open air corridor that lead down to an equally open air common area. Mary Ann and I were directed to first doorway, which was the administrative office of the pre-school. This is where we were to set up our pharmacy. Soon our new shelves were brought in and placed inside the office. I also found a couple of small school tables which I once again stacked atop one another to create even more shelving. Mary Ann and I then began unloading and organizing the meds. Once again, this was a chaotic process, because we had not been as careful as we should have been when packing things back up at Marcello’s house following our luggage consolidation attempt. However, we were so old hat at organizing the disorganized by this point that it didn’t really bother us too much.

Meanwhile Ashley, Dr. Allen and Andrew set up in the large room across the corridor which they were to share. Flo, our appointed pediatrician med-student, set up in the rear building of the complex. We also got to meet many of the missionary and translator staff we would be working with during the week’s clinics. Jo Ann told us that she would be providing translation services for the pharmacy.

Soon it was time to go out front for introductions to our patients for the day. Even with a public address system set up, it was hard to hear over the din of the cicadas. There were only 40 patients at the beginning of the day. I believe we were prepared to give out at least 60 number tickets for the day, but the other 20 did go to use throughout the day as more patients arrived.

After introductions, Dr. Allen shared his testimony while the rest of us returned to setting up our stations. He had shared it with at least one of the patient groups in Guatemala, but I had not been there to hear it that day because of pharmacy set up. However, because our pharmacy was there at the front of the building with open windows, I could hear it. I don’t think he would mind me sharing it here.

Dr. Allen took a very long road to on his way to Christianity. He spent much of his early adult life as a secular humanist. Both he and Mary Ann had been married and divorced from other people before meeting one another, marrying and starting a family. Of the two of them only Mary Ann was a Christian, but as she had been raised under a strict Catholic doctrine she was under the belief that because she had divorced she was now damned to hell. Even in the face of that, she wanted to take her children to church and began attending services in a local protestant church. She would occasionally ask Dr. Allen to go with them, but he was deadest against it and would become angry with her when she asked. He said that at one point things in their marriage had become do bad that he had threatened to divorce her if she ever asked him to church again. Somehow, though, she did manage to persuade him to go in because the minister at her church had said he wanted to meet Dr. Allen. Dr. Allen went with the full intention of telling this man off. However, instead of a fight Dr. Allen he found that he actually liked the minister and the two soon became friends. It was not long afterwards that the spirit moved in Dr. Allen’s heart and he came to recognize the need for God in his life. He accepted Christ and joined the church there and he and Mary Allen have been strong marriage partners ever since.

Hearing his testimony blew me away, because you would never suspect to know Dr. Allen that he was anything other than a life-long Christian. Granted, I don’t know him very well myself, having only met him a few weeks before this trip. But from what Ashley has told me about him, from having worked with him and Mary Ann for four months worth of rotations, he is a very caring and compassionate doctor who wears his Christianity proudly with his patients. He’s not afraid to pray for them and with them in the course of his work. It’s a testimate to the life-altering power of Christ’s love that this man who once hated religion has come to know God so strongly.

Dr. Allen has only been on a handful of mission trips so far. I believe that when Ashley did her first medical rotation with his office, she learned of his interest in the mission field and had reccomended Word of Life’s program. He liked the sound of it so much that he and Mary Ann went with them on last year’s trip and plan to continue going with WOL and other groups in the future.

Soon our first El Salvador clinic was underway and our pharmacy almost completely set up. One thing that confused and concerned Mary Ann and I, however, was the fact that a goodly portion of our meds had seemingly vanished.

See, before at our clinic in Pasaco, Guatemala, Marcello had brought us several boxes of donated Spanish-label medicines to help replenish some of our dwindling stocks. It had taken Mary Ann the better part of an hour with Dr. Allen’s Epocrates equipped PDA to figure out what most of those medicines were and relabel them so that we could begin prescribing them to patients. However, by the time we’d figured them all out our final Guatemalan clinic was nearly finished, so we had just loaded them all back on the bus and taken them back to camp, intending to carry the meds on to El Salvador. From what we then deduced, though, we had managed to leave the boxes of Spanish medication back on the big school bus and they had never been unloaded with the rest of the meds we’d had at Marcello’s house. We were also missing a few other non-critical supplies, which we had to assume were left behind on the bus as well. It would have been nice to have everything we’d intended to bring, but our mistake in leaving it behind wasn’t the end of the world. After all, Marcello would host other medical missions in the year and those meds would eventually go to good use.

The clinic setup in the preschool in San Salvador was quite ideal to our purposes. The patients waited in the chairs out front until it was their turn to speak with the missionaries. (Unfortunately, the only shade we could give them was beneath the cicada-filled tree. As you’ll see later in this day’s post, this was not necessarily a good thing.) They were then invited across the street to some other small buildings the local Word of Life staff had arranged to use for the actual mission outreach.

After they were finished there, the patients came back across and waited once again in front of the building until there was space for them in the open-air common area toward the back of the school. Then they would be seen be the first available doctor, depending on their needs. (For instance, if they were children, they went right to Flo’s station, while adults went to Dr. Allen, Ashley or Andrew.) We unfortunately had no dental team on this mission, but dental problems didn’t seem to come up in El Salvador nearly as much as in Guatemala.)

After being examined and treated, the patients brought their prescription forms around to the front window of the building where they handed them through for us to fill. Like I said, it was pretty ideal. And the weather was fantastic. We had been told by our friends in Guatemala that the weather in El Salvador was going to be even hotter than it had been during our first week. God was evidently smiling down on us that week because the temperatures rarely pushed much past 90. It was still definitely warm, but not nearly as humid as we had expected. Jo Ann stressed that the weather was abnormally cool for this time of year and that she too was rather amazed about it because they had not expected such good temperatures.

While we had taken over much of the school itself, the school was still very much in operation. The kids had just been relocated to one of the larger rooms that we weren’t occupying and they mostly stayed in there, coming out to play in the play yard on occasion, usually when there weren’t too many patients around. The school’s administrator/teacher was also on hand. I think she was probably annoyed that we had taken over her office, but was very accommodating, even when she had to come in and rummage through her desk for things. Another employee was the school’s cook and she spent much of her time in the kitchen area just one room down from us, preparing some of the best-smelling foods.

While I was still popping Cipros down three times a day, my stomach wasn’t quite as strong as I usually prefer. Naturally, I had to use the bano at one point and went off to find it. The banos for the school were located toward the rear of the facility behind two brown metal doors. Inside the stalls were toilets that did not come equipped with toilet seats. This made things a bit tricky, but the rooms were very clean, as were the toilets themselves and the waste baskets beside them, so I didn’t worry too much. However, when it came time to flush, I was horrified that the flush handle did nothing at all. I was afraid that I must have used the broken toilet and was embarrassed that we might have to live with my byproducts for much of the day. The school’s cook saw my distressed expression and signaled to me to pay attention. Outside the banos, there in the outdoor common area of the school, were two large concrete sinks filled with probably a dozen gallons of water each. As I watched the woman picked up one of the large plastic basins that rested on the sides of one of the sinks, dipped them into the water and pantomimed pouring it out as she pointed to the bano room I’d just come from. Ah ha! So I filled a basin, took it in there and poured it into the bowl of my toilet and everything flushed just fine.

While I’m pretty sure most of the buildings in the area did have running water, the concrete sinks and similar ones like it in the neighborhood did seem to serve as a water source for some neighborhood homes that did not have running water. Throughout the morning we saw ladies walking down the street carrying tall plastic jugs of water on their heads, coming to and from a water source further down the road. Some of the water jugs had advertising on them.

We talked with Jo Ann during some of the down time that morning. Though she’s been a resident of both South and Central America for over 20 years, she originally came from New Jersey. She had lived in Argentina and Chile for much of her time, but had spent the last several years in El Salvador helping to set up the Word of Life ministry with Tito and their son.

Jo Ann seemed impressed with how quickly and efficiently we took to our jobs. She even said my Spanish dosing instructions sounded quite authentic and asked if I spoke Spanish fluently.

“No,” I said, in perfect Spanish.

We broke for lunch around noon. We didn’t have enough staff to justify taking lunch in shifts, so we just locked up the clinic and headed to a building next door that was equipped with a large conference room. There we received our catered meal prepared by longtime friends of the Word of Life El Salvador team. We had delicious sandwiches during our lunches this week and every day these sandwiches came with some of the best potato chips I’ve ever eaten. These were home made potato chips, thick cut and deep fried to a crisp. They were fantastic, particularly with mayonnaise. And there was always extra food at the end if we wanted seconds. Beyond a few pangs of guilt about being so spoiled in a country where so many of the neighbors had so little, I enjoyed our lunch time meals. It was also a great time to get to know some of the other missionaries and translation staff members. Just as in Guatemala, most of them were university and highschool-aged students who were fluent in English.

One non-appetizing aspect of going to and from lunch was having to walk underneath the tree in front of the building. This is because there was a near-constant stream of cicada urine raining down from the tree. Maybe it was cicada spit, but I doubt it. It was very disgusting to keep feeling drops of it hit you, knowing full well what it was. We took to walking a wide path around the tree whenever we could, but because the tree’s limbs stretched over the open corridor and play area of the pre-school complex, we could never completely avoid getting wet. We were all glad we had plenty of hand-sanitizer.

After lunch, we returned to the clinic where we found we had far more patients waiting than we’d had before lunch. More number tickets were issued and we started right in. Fortunately, the medical team was joined then by an El Salvadorian doctor named Dr. Grace. Dr. Grace was awesome to work with, not only for her bright demeanor and quick wit but also because she spoke fluent English as well as Spanish, which made working out any prescription translation problems much easier on us. The only real downside to Dr. Grace’s presence is that because she spoke Spanish as her native language she was able to see many more patients than any of the other doctors, creating that much more work for the pharmacy. We found ourselves completely swamped in patients waiting for their prescriptions and we had to hop quick to keep up with the demand.

Our patients mostly consisted of partial families, with a mom bringing in her kids for treatment. Sometimes aunts would bring nieces and nephews. Sometimes grandparents would bring in grand kids. It varied quite a bit. We didn’t have a tremendous amount of male patients, but when we did they were usually elderly.

One younger man we did treat was a guy we came to learn was the area’s town drunk. He was quite sloshed already when he arrived at the clinic, late in the morning after all the morning’s number tickets had been passed out. The missionaries told him to come back in the afternoon when we would give out more tickets, but the man just hung around asking anyone who got near him to have a look at his thumb. He even came up to the pharmacy on several occasions trying to get me to have a look at his thumb. Now, in his defense, I was wearing a scrub shirt, so I guess I sort of looked like a doc. (I’d avoided wearing scrubs in Guatemala for this very reason, but then I tried one on and found out the shirts are quite cool and comfy, so I wore it anyway.) I, with Jo Ann translating, told the man that I was not a doctor and invited him to come back later when a real doctor could treat him. Still he persisted and kept showing me his blackened thumbnail. Some of the locals who were in line at the pharmacy told us the man’s story and advised us to just ignore him. But after lunch, I made it a point to make sure this man got a ticket to be treated. Just because he was a little obnoxious and drunk didn’t mean he wasn’t hurting and I’d let a doctor determine just how bad off the guy’s thumb was.

Soon he was officially in line and proceeded through the system until he came to Dr. Allen’s station. Dr. Allen said the thumbnail was filled with blood from some previous injury and it needed to be drained out. Dr. Allen had the fellow lay on one of the tables and then called Andrew over to do the surgery. Andrew proceeded to use a heated implement to bore a hole through the man’s nail and they began the drainage using a siringe. Everyone gathered around to watch and squirm at the uncomfortable sight, and I’m pretty sure Butch got video of it all. The patient never uttered a peep during it, but then again I think he was pretty-well self-anesthetized.

During what little down time Dr. Grace’s efficiency allowed us, I put up a new pharmacy sign. One of the real pharmacists from West Virginia who usually comes on these Word of Life missions is a guy named Fritz. He runs an establishment called Fritz’s Pharmacy back home. (And even if Ashley didn’t know the man personally, I would have known this because we get about one call per month at our house from customers of Fritz’s Pharmacy who assume that because our last name is Fritzius we must somehow be Fritz. We always explain that we are not Fritz, to which the customers almost always reply, “Well, do you know Fritz’s number?”) Unfortunately, this is the first year in the past three that Fritz was unable to come on the trip, but he did help provide us with very cheap medications to take with us. So cheap, in fact, that he bought quite a bit of them himself and wouldn’t allow us to reimburse him from funds, grants and donations that our WV team had already raised. Granted, he was getting these meds at cost, but this still represented several thousand dollars worth of pharmaceuticals that we would otherwise have been without. I dare say the vast majority of the meds we had on hand came from Fritz’s donation. In his honor, I made up two simple duct-tape signs that read “Fritz’s Pharmacia” and taped them up at our window and above our door. (I later learned that in Spanish the word is actually spelled “Farmacia” but it worked just as well.)

Sometime during the afternoon, Butch found a gecko. It was a bright green lizardy little thing, with patches of blue. Butch captured him in a Tupperware bowl and held him for safe-keeping and observation, tossing in a few bugs and some water to keep the little guy fed and watered. We suggested that he toss in a cicada, but we frankly weren’t sure which one would win that fight. Butch was proud of his gecko. He tied a little string leash around him and posed for pictures.

Speaking of cicadas, as the afternoon progressed into early evening, the cicadas buzzing grew much louder and they began to leave the confines of the tree. Once the sun had set and we began to turn on interior lights in the clinic buildings, the cicadas took to flying in and buzzing loudly around the lights and falling on us. I didn’t care so much, as I don’t really find the cicadas themselves disgusting. However, Mary Ann was in constant fear of cicada attack and would squeal every time one would buzz through. No one wanted to squish the things, because as big as they were it would be a huge mess to have to clean up. So I wound up having to pick several of them up and fling them out the front door. The cicadas didn’t seem to care. In fact, there was a little boy at the school who went around picking up as many cicadas as he could find until he had a huge buzzing ball of them between his hands. This he carried around, causing us some concern that he might get it in his head to walk into one of the clinic rooms and fling his cicada cargo into the air. Fortunately, he didn’t.

By the end of the day, we had decided that the clinic site was so perfect that we would just do all of our week’s clinics there. Our only problem was that we were running out of some of our medications. I began compiling a list of the things we were out of or nearly out of: Children’s Benadryl, cough syrup, Amoxil liquid, Hydrocortizone cream, fungicidal creams, Triamcynalone and Nystatin cream. I hoped we could swing by a real pharmacy in the morning and pick some up. And despite our joy at having our Enfamil returned to us just days before, we had yet to use any of it. There just wasn’t a lot of need for it. It seemed an awful shame to have spent so much for it and had so much trouble getting it here and not having any use for it.

We wrapped up our day’s clinic around 7:30, let the school administrator lock up the building and then climbed into Sylvana’s van to head out. We drove 35 minutes or so back through San Salvador until we reached the Word of Life staff offices, located not terribly far from where Tito and Jo Ann’s home not to mention our hotel. The office was in a residential neighborhood and was probably used as a home itself in the past. There we, and the mission and translation staff, all gathered for our evening devotional and meal. We dined on delicious lasagna and salad provided by the same caterers from lunch. Butch had compiled a slide show of the last two days worth of pictures from Guatemala to show the El Salvador staff. I still found that my emotions were very close to the surface about some of our experiences in Guatemala. Even the pictures of the patients from our final clinic day in Pasaco not to mention all the beauty we’d seen in Antigua caused me to tear up all over again. They weren’t the heart-broken tears I’d shed after our first clinic in Guatemala, but were a good release all the same.

We said goodnight and returned to the comfort of our hotel.

In addition to wonderful air-conditioning and cool tile showers, our room also had a balcony that overlooked the street below and had a nice view of San Salvador itself. Ashley and I enjoyed standing out there and peering out in silence, marveling at where we were and what we were there to do. This was truly the kind of quick-paced trip where you had to stop and take a look around once in a while.

EL SALVADOR CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 197
Prescriptions Filled: 409
Salvations/Rededications: 75

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Monday, March 28, 2005

We met Oswald and Rita’s housemate’s Monday morning. Rita had risen and was making a huge breakfast of waffles for us when Christina came in the back door. I hadn’t realized it until then, but there were concrete steps just outside the sliding glass back door that lead up to a second floor of the house where Christina, her husband Cody and their foster daughter Mia Rene stayed.

We didn’t know a lot about them at this point, but Rita soon filled us in that Christina was an American who had been living there with them in Guatemala City for over a year while she and Cody waited for the application to adopt Mia to reach its completion. Cody was a youth minister from North Carolina and he stayed back in the states most of the time, but would come down to see Christina and Mia as often as he could. Foreign adoption is a lengthy process in Central America and there is a lot of waiting around and applying and reapplying involved. Christina had been with them so long that she had actually assisted as a translator and missionary during the Word of Life medical mission trip of 2004. In the months since then, Christina and Cody had gone from merely wishing to adopt Mia Rene to actually becoming her legal foster guardians in Guatemala, a major step toward ultimately adopting her.

Christina came in with Mia Rene. Mia, who was only about a year and a half old, was a little shy at first, but she quickly warmed up to having strangers paying attention to her and was soon all grins.

We learned that we actually had a connection to Christina beyond just being fellow countrymen. Though Christina and Cody live in North Carolina now, Christina was actually from West Virginia and grew up in a town only about 50 miles from our own. Small world.

It was kind of cool that we met Cody and Christina when we did, because that day was going to be a pretty major one in their lives and they already knew it. We were meeting them on the very day that they would finally learn whether their adoption of Mia would be approved or whether they were in for more months of waiting around. Naturally, they were both very nervous and excited. Cody explained that they had been at this process for so long that he’d started a blog about it just so his family and friends could keep abreast of the latest details in the ongoing struggle of adoption. That site The Adoption of Mia Rene had become quite popular with folks around the country and there were quite a few people who were waiting with baited breath for news of Mia’s parental status.

After finishing our waffles and spending some more time talking with Cody and Christina, Oswald told us it was time to go. We thanked Rita for her hospitality, told her we would be praying for her regarding her own impending infant and then headed back to Marcello’s house with Oswald.

We didn’t expect to find Dr. Allen or Marcello at the house and our expectations were right on the money. They along with Butch had gone to the U.S. Embassy to see about his new passport. We didn’t have any idea how involved a process this would be, but figured it couldn’t be too quick. We just hoped they had better results than Cody and Christina. Once Andrew and Flo arrived, we began packing our meds and supplies so we would be ready to leave as soon as Dr. Allen and Marcello returned.

My neck was hurting a bit so Ashley cracked it for me, all Osteopathic-style. After that, she began working on cracking Andrew’s back and neck and sharing neck-cracking tips. I decided to go check email and returned to Marcello’s computer. I mainly wanted to see if anyone had responded to my Easter message from Sunday. One such response came from my mother-in-law, Susie.

She wrote:

Hi Eric and Ashley. I need to let you both know, Red has had a bad fall off the roof of the new building. Very broken up! C4, T1, T2, T6, 3 ribs, left wrist a jigsaw puzzle, cut to the bone on outer right thigh. In lots of pain and upper body/neck brace. Prayer needed! NO PARALYSIS!!!!! Airlifted to Asheville trauma center for 4 days…home now.

Glad to hear that the mission is going good. and glad to hear that no pickpockets hit you!

Be careful and stay safe.

Love, MamaSan

Reading this made my blood run cold. I immediately ran to get Ashley.

When she read it, she burst into tears, but not from sadness. She was overjoyed that her pa was still alive. And she knew from the line “NO PARALYSIS” that a miracle had to have occurred in order for him to still BE alive. People do NOT usually break C4 and live, let alone live without any paralysis.

We phoned them as soon as we could.

Ma had been worried we would be furious with her for not having contacted us sooner. However, as she had said in her e-mail, the accident had occurred only six hours after we had left Charlotte. She knew if she told us then that we would have turned right around to come back and she didn’t want that to happen unless it looked like Pa was going to die. As it stood, it was pretty clear to them early on that while he was in really bad shape and wasn’t completely in the clear, he wasn’t paralyzed and was not at death’s door. We understood this and were not mad. I would also later learn that if I had actually looked through all of my other e-mail in my regular account, I would have found a message from several days earlier telling us we needed to call home ASAP.

Ma told us that Pa had been up on the roof of the log-cabin garage he’s building when a piece of roofing tin that wasn’t properly nailed down slipped out from beneath his foot. He began a slow, almost controlled slide toward the edge of the roof and then fell off. He was going feet first when he fell, which would still have hurt but would probably not have sustained him any more than a broken ankle. However, on his way down, his leg caught on a nail that was sticking out from the end of one of the untrimmed logs of the structure and that tore a long gash down the side of his leg and served to spin him around in the air so that his head and neck then took the brunt of the fall. He landed on his left wrist and then his neck and back. This knocked the wind out of him, and Pa later told us that he was pretty sure he was a goner right there because when he couldn’t immediately breathe he figured he’d snapped something good that had severed his control of his lungs. Gradually, he was able to start breathing again.

Pa’s Uncle Bob, who lives in a house right next to where the garage is being built, happened to look out when Pa fell and saw the whole thing. He called 911 and came running. A neighbor was soon on the scene as well, and Uncle Bob sent her to go get Ma, because for all he knew Red was dying right there.

Just like Ma’s letter said, Red was back home by the time we called. She let Ashley talk to him. He was feeling pretty good on opiates at the moment, but sounded good. Ash hung up and we both just cried and hugged one another, thanking God that Red had been spared.

After lunch, we loaded up the van, putting most of our luggage full of medication onto the luggage rack on its roof. There had to have been 700 pounds of worth of it up there. At one point, we debated whether to leave behind the spare tire that was taking up valuable space behind the back seats of the van. We finally opted to leave it in, because even though we were doing a lot on faith for this trip, it always helps to stay prepared. We left Marcello’s house around 1 p.m. for our journey to El Salvador.

We’d only gone a few miles when Marcello realized that he did not have his passport on him and since he would be needing it for the journey we turned around to go back. As we did a sharp U-turn as part of our trip back to his house, something in the left front tire began to make a horrible sound. It was kind of grinding sound combined with a clunking that did not sound one bit good. But since it only seemed to happen when Marcello made extreme turns, I hoped for the best. Unfortunately, most of Marcello’s turns are extreme turns.

Once we got his necessary documents, we hit the open road as fast as Marcello’s gas-pedal foot would let us.

Several dozen miles into our journey, we learned that there were actually some limitations to how fast Marcello could go, outside of those imposed on him by traffic and speed limit signs. With the van fully loaded by us and all that luggage on the roof rack, we found that if Marcello got too much above 75 mph the entire van began vibrating in a most loud and disturbing fashion. I was about to explain to Marcello that the vibration was God’s way of telling him to slow down, when he took the hint on his own and kept things below 75. We also noticed a small red light on the van’s dash-board that read “MAINT REQD”. We asked Marcello if he was aware of it.

“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?” he said, grinning like a madman.

Once again, as soon as we had left the higher elevations, the air became hot, humid and nasty. We opened the van’s long windows as far as they could go, which, in most cases, wasn’t much. In fact, I had to stuff a racquetball between the glass and the van’s frame to keep one open at all.

Our route to El Salvador lead us directly back the way we’d come that morning. We passed Chiquimuilla, then the camp itself and then by the road leading to Pasaco. Within a half hour of camp, we had arrived at the border.

I’d only been through a national border situation once before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This one came in two parts, the Guatemala section and the El Salvador section. As we arrived at the Guatemala section, Butch handed us customs forms to fill out. We then left the van and walked over to the median building between east and west bound roads where we handed our forms and passport over to a man at a window. He typed us each into his computer, brought us up on his screen and gave us a piece of paper saying everything seemed clear and it was okay with him if we left Guatemala. This was all done within sight of the van, which seemed like a good idea as there were some folks eyeing our luggage atop the van who also looked to be doing complicated equations in their heads gauging how quickly and easily they could make off with some of it. With us standing RIGHT THERE watching them, though, their equations didn’t work out so good for them.

We then got back in the van and drove down the road to the El Salvador section of the border. This was a slightly different affair, as we had to park the van and actually go inside a building to attend to the next step of the border crossing. There were lots of teenagers and other folks standing around outside the building too, also eyeing our luggage. We decided we needed to do this in shifts. So Ash and I stood guard at opposite corners of the van while Marcello, Butch, Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Flo and Andrew went in to do their paperwork. After Butch and Marcello came out, we went on in where we were greeted by very friendly border agents who smiled at us from behind glass windows. We decided the reason they were smiling was due to the arctic breeze we could feel coming from the gap in the bottom of the window. It was a sharp contrast to the humid air on our side of the glass.

“I could stand here ALL DAY LONG,” I told Andrew as I basked in the little blast of heaven coming through the gap.

All in all, the border was fairly painless.

We went through a few small El Salvador towns that seemed very similar to the small towns we had seen in Guatemala. However, the further we went into the country the more things began to change. For one thing, El Salvador seemed to have an active litter removal program in place. While we drove, we saw at least a dozen teams of orange-vest wearing workers picking up trash along the roads. The towns we passed through seemed progressively cleaner the further we went. Then I noticed foliage began to look more tropical and we soon found ourselves driving along the coastline itself. The scenery was spectacular, what with it being late in the afternoon with the sun getting low in the sky, casting golden light across the ocean and all. Occasionally, we’d catch a glimpse of what looked like pristine black-sand beaches with nary an item of garbage to be seen. Only Butch could get pictures, as his was the only window that wasn’t tinted and could fully open.

For the past three years, Ashley has maintained that one day she’ll move to Guatemala to live in the beautiful mountain town of Xela, where she visited on her last trip to Central America. There she would open a clinic where she would use only osteopathic manipulation techniques to help her patients. And she would not accept money but work exclusively for chicken and squash. Upon seeing the coast of El Salvador, though, she altered her plans a bit. She announced she would still spend her summers in Xela, where the weather is cool, but would now winter on the coast of El Salvador, working for fish and fruit.

We had experienced some of the more unfortunate aspects of both Marcello’s van and his driving throughout the journey thus far, but as we began hurtling up and over the curving winding coast-line roads of El Salvador, one of the earlier problems came back to haunt us: the tire. The grinding/clunking sound we had heard from the front left tire earlier in the journey returned each and every time Marcello went around the curves on our very curvy road. It might not have made any unusual sound if anyone but Marcello had been driving, but he insisted on taking these curves at Nascar-inspired speeds. And whenever we hit a straight stretch, he would speed up until the van started to shake again, then bring it back down. So it was a seemingly never-ending series of horrible van noises, no matter the topography. My fear was that the tire that was making the horrible noise would blow out while we were hurtling along one of the curvier sections of road, sending us off a cliff or into oncoming traffic, or some equally lethal combination of the two. And there wasn’t a seat-belt between the 8 of us.

This is when I began to pray in earnest. My prayer was a simple one. “Dear Lord, please protect the contents of this van, including the passengers and all the van’s working parts. If we must have a blowout, please keep us safe.” I continued to pray this as we continued careening around the coastline.

After a while more, it also occurred to me that if we did have a blowout and died horribly, no one back home would ever know the details of our trip. I’d been keeping my journal throughout the first week of the missions, and had been doing an almost play by play note-taking account of learning of Pa’s accident and of our trip to El Salvador thus far. It seemed a shame it should all vanish if we were killed. (I know, hardly a thing to be thinking about when death, or at least potential death, is on the line, but that’s what my mind was doing then.) I began thinking that it might be a good idea if I put instructions in my journal for it to be mailed to a friend should the rest of us perish.

Before I could put this plan into action, however, we had a massive blowout.

The blowout occurred a mere 3 miles from the Word of Life camp property in El Salvador. We had come to a very straight stretch of two-lane road with occasional businesses and gas-stations along both sides. Butch had also been telling us that he recognized the area from when he used to go jogging in the mornings while staying at the property. Suddenly there was this explosive sound from the front left side of the van followed by a roar and the entire van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic. I was sitting on the left side of the van and leapt toward the right side as soon as the explosion happened on my side. What I didn’t see immediately, what Ashley had to tell me about later, was that when the van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic, it did so directly into the path of an oncoming 18 wheeler. Then, call it a miracle or call it Marcello’s Indy-500 wannabe driving skills, but he somehow got the van back into our lane despite the 700 pounds of luggage on the roof that could easily have flipped us in less capable hands. Say what you will about his driving, God held his hands steady that day.

We quickly pulled over to the side of the road and Marcello saw that the front left tire was indeed blown out. Fortunately, it was a retread tire so we were still able to drive with it, albeit slowly. We plodded along at 15 mph with our tire making loud flappy sounds, trying to make it all the way to the WOL camp. After two miles, though, the sounds had reached a point that indicated we needed to stop driving. Coincidentally, this was when we arrived at a tire-repair shop that was still open at that time of evening.

The tire, now mostly shredded, was a sight to behold. It was soon removed and the full-sized spare tire we had nearly left behind was rolled over and put in its place. Meanwhile, Butch phoned Tito, the leader of the WOL mission in El Salvador to let him know where we were.

We all then stood around and just marveled at our day. Ashley pointed out that we were obviously meant to be here in El Salvador because otherwise we would not have had so many obstacles thrown into our path.

Soon Tito arrived with his wife Jo Ann, as well as his son and some other missionaries. They had a small mini-van and a pickup truck. We followed them for the remaining mile to the camp-property. The El Salvador camp was not nearly as big as the Guatemalan one, at least not that we could see in the darkness of night. It consisted of a large pavilion building that was still a work in progress, as well as a bano house and some other smaller buildings. We helped Tito’s missionary team unload our luggage from Marcello’s van and put into the back of a pickup truck, where it was tied down.

Dr. Allen tried to convince Marcello to stay the night in El Salvador rather than drive all the way back tonight. Granted, it was only a few hours away, less with Marcello driving, but we felt nervous on his behalf. If he had another blowout, there would be no spare tire. Marcello declined to stay. Fortunately one of the missionaries with Tito’s team was a Guatemalan national who needed to return to his home country. This man had agreed to accompany Marcello back on the journey that night and proceed to Guatemala City from Marcello’s camp on the following day. We felt better.

We said our goodbyes to Marcello and had one final group prayer with him, praying that our coming week’s worth of missions in El Salvador would be as successful as those in Guatemala.

After this, we the mission team were told to pile into the white mini-van for the trip from the camp to San Salvador.

Butch had told us that we wouldn’t be staying at the WOL camp property, which was a bit of a load off of our minds as the property had no beds anyway. Instead, we would be put up in a hotel in San Salvador, conveniently located near Tito and Jo Ann’s home.

Our trip to San Salvador took around 40 minutes, but it was a sheer joy. The van we were riding in was a fairly new vehicle with a powerful air-conditioning system that was on at full blast and ice-cold the entire journey. We basked in the coolness and considered it a small reward for such a trying day. And while the van had seatbelts, I don’t think any of us used them. After spending the day taking my safety on faith and having that faith rewarded, it seemed a little questionable to start worrying about seatbelts at this stage.

The van was owned and driven by a missionary named Sylvana. She didn’t speak a lot of English, but understood enough of it that we could communicate if necessary. Still, the drive was a quiet one.

San Salvador, at night, looked a lot like a typical large American city. Sure, the billboards were mostly in Spanish, but other than that it seemed like a lot of places I’ve been before. Everything seemed far more modern than even Guatemala City had. It felt a lot more like home.

We arrived at Tito and JoAnn’s house some time after 8:30 p.

While we waited for dinner to arrive, they turned on the television so we could get some news from the outside world via English-speaking cable news channels. Most of the news was about about the Terry Schiavo case, though we did catch a brief mention that the Pope was in very poor health.

We dined on Pizza Hut delivery that night. It was fantastic stuff, too. Much like the McDonald’s in Guatemala, this tasted exactly like pizza from home, only in Spanish.

We knew very little about Tito and Jo Ann, at this point, but soon learned more. Tito was a quiet man who didn’t speak very much English, or so we were lead to believe. Mostly, he sat back and listened while Jo Ann took care of communications with us. This was very easy for Jo Ann, as she was American herself. She and Tito met while she was studying at the Word of Life mission institute in Argentina, back in the 1980s. The two of them had eventually moved to El Salvador to begin the first Word of Life mission in that country. Though the WOL El Salvador mission team had been in place for a number of years, ours was going to be their very first medical mission, and I wondered if Jo Ann and Tito were nervous about it. If so, they didn’t let on to us. Instead, they asked us many questions about how our missions in Guatemala had gone and asked if there was anything special we would need to make our job easier. Mary Ann and I asked for shelves for the pharmacy, but told them we would make do with what was on hand if necessary.

Jo Ann explained that our clinic site would be in one of the poorer areas of San Salvador and that we should expect some hesitation from the locals we would be serving as far as the mission-portion of the clinics went. She said that most people in the country were devoutly loyal Catholics and there was much fear of family reaction to any switches to other branches of Christianity. (This is not to say that Catholics are not good Christians, by any means. However, people of all faiths can sometimes be more loyal to the religion itself than they are to God. And we weren’t really there to convert existing Christians, but to make sure everyone understood what true Christianity meant, regardless of their religion of choice.)

During dinner, a news report flashed across the crawl of the cable news channel indicating there had been another massive earthquake in the pacific and another tsunami was expected.

After dinner we loaded back up in Sylvana’s van and drove a few blocks to the Hotel Miramonte, where we would be staying. I don’t think any of us were sure what to expect from a San Salvadorian hotel, but this place was above and beyond our greatest expectations. The Hotel Miramonte was a fantastic place to stay. The only real difference we saw between it and any very nice American hotel was that a guard had to let you in through a locking door and everyone exclusively spoke Spanish.

Inside the lobby there were marble floors, a nice open air fountain area, comfy seating and a complimentary internet access terminal for guests. Our rooms were also spectacular, with more marble in the banos, a balcony that overlooked a nearby club called Skizofrenia and a nice view of the city park across the street. Did I mention the air-conditioning? Oh, it had air-conditioning O’Plenty. We were overjoyed.

After a long shower, Ash and I collapsed into our comfy bed, unsure of what the following day’s early start would bring us, but willing to tackle that when it came.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Sunday, March 27, 2005

Despite the fact that it was Easter Sunday, our breakfast was a slightly somber affair. The people on the various teams, West Virginia, Racine, and local, knew we were about to part and wouldn’t see one another for a while, if ever.

After eating, we set about packing everything up to leave, including the bags of medicine our smaller group would be taking to El Salvador at some point.

Because Dr. Allen’s passport had been stolen, and because all government offices were closed for the holiday weekend, we the El Salvador team would be staying in Guatemala for at least one extra day and since we couldn’t stay at the camp itself, other accomodations would be made for us. Some of the missionary staff from Guatemala City were kind enough to act as hosts for our team, so that we would split off and stay with them in their homes. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann would stay with Marcello Diez and his family; Andrew would stay with Alex; Butch would stay with Marcello Hounko; Flo would stay with Marcello D’s secretary Susie and Ashley and I would be staying that night at the home of Oswald and his wife Rita. Sounded great to us, but we were about to get a shock from Oswald we hadn’t expected.

Some of the missionaries had passed out copies of their support cards that morning, which are cards with a picture of the missionary and their families as well as contact information used for gathering financial support for their mission work. The one Oswald handed us, however, was surprising. It showed a picture of Oswald and his wife Rita, but listed them as “Odwar and Rita”.

I thought, Oh no! We’ve been calling him Oswald all week when his name’s really Odwar! We’ve been calling him the wrong name!

I showed it to Ashley, who was shocked too. However, she was brave enough to actually go up and ask Oswald what his real name was. Oswald explained that, yes, his name really was Odwar, but since no one could ever pronounce it he just told people to call him Oswald.

Oswald and Rita had been in the thoughts of the entire camp for the past several days. Earlier in the week we had learned that Rita was seven months pregnant, but that she was experiencing some difficulties with the pregnancy in which her body didn’t seem to be producing enough amniotic fluid for the womb. This was the sort of problem that might cause problems for the baby and her doctors were concerned that they might have to induce a premature delivery in order to save the baby’s life. This wasn’t a sure thing, though, and she had undergone many tests to try and see if it was a matter of simple dehydration or if something more serious was wrong. Oswald had driven back and forth to Guatemala City to be with her throughout the week. Even by the end of the week, though, we still didn’t know whether an early labor would have to be induced.

With this knowledge in hand, Ash and I decided to give them an early baby shower gift. We had brought with us a beautiful quilted baby blanket that had been donated to us for the mission trip. This Ashley folded up in such a way that it made a pocket in the front. And into the pocket I put the little teddy bear I’d been saving. We gave this to Oswald just before we left.

Despite all common sense, we rode back to Guatemala City in Marcello’s van with Marcello driving. Fortunately, Marcello was a much more sane driver during the day when there was a greater amount of traffic to slow him down.

It was so good to get back to Guatemala City. The weather is so much nicer at that altitude. We went directly to the airport, where Marcello parked and then went inside with Butch, Dr. Allen and Mary Ann to see to helping out the rest of the team as they went through customs and prepared for departure. Ashley decided to go also, to find out if there had been any word on what happened to our suspicious looking bag full of Enfamil. Then, after sitting around at the van for a bit, I realized that my stomach still wasn’t feeling well at all. In fact, it darn nigh hurt. I decided to go in as well to find a bano. Flo and Andrew stayed back to guard the van, the roof of which was piled high with luggage, which would be attractive to thieves.

Inside the airport I found my bano and did my business. My stomach felt a little better, but the tempest was definitely brewing again. Dr. Allen had repeatedly told everyone to let him know at the first sign of stomach problems, but like a dumbass I had not.

Not long later, I found Ashley who had, in turn, found the Enfamil bag. The airport staff didn’t give her a lot of trouble about it. They didn’t even get huffy when she revealed she didn’t have the papers in hand that proved the bag was hers, but instead asked a few pointed questions then handed it over. From what Marcello told us, the airport is supposed to pay around $76 per day for any baggage that doesn’t get to the proper passenger, so it appeared as though there would be some windfall from this yet. Once back in the van, we found the paperwork for the bag and gave it to Marcello, telling him that he should get whatever money he could in the deal and send that many more kids to camp.

After seeing everyone off safely, we the El Salvador team piled back in Marcello’s van and headed to his house for lunch.

I told Ashley that my stomach had been giving me problems. She said hers had too several days earlier, but she had knocked it out with a firm application of Cipro. In fact, she’d replaced the little doll charm in the cloth pouch she’d got in Antigua with a round of Cipro pills and this she then gave to me. I took one Cipro after lunch and that wiped out much of my intestinal problems. However, the Cipro pouch would not leave my neck for the rest of the trip.

Before lunch at Marcello’s house, I finally got to check my e-mail for the first time in over a week. I had 20 pages of e-mail awaiting me, most of it Spam and business to take care of from West Virginia Writers. Even though I was on a DSL connection, it was taking forever to go through everything and delete all the Spam. Instead of finishing that right away, I fired up my gmail account and sent the following note to friends and family back home.

Happy Easter greetings from Guatemala City. We have finished our
first week of this two-week mission trip and are resting in
preparation for travel to El Salvador tomorrow.

The week has been an amazing one. Exhausting, yes; scary, sometimes,
but amazing all the same. I have no time or space for much detail,
but we did four total medical clinics this week in two separate towns.
I got to play pharmacist for them, dispensing medicines to patients
according to instructions from doctors and students actually trained
to know what the medicines were good for. We had a staff of around 40
students and doctors of both the traditional medical and dental
varieties. The clinics were a huge success both medically and
spiritually. We saw some uplifting and harrowing sights and will have
the pictures to prove it.

Our original plan to be in El Salvador today has changed somewhat due
to our team leader having his passport stolen by a pickpocket while we
were in Antigua on Friday. (The pickpockets did pretty well off our
group, actually, though neither Ashley nor I had anything taken.) Our
local mission leader has many connections, though, so we will
hopefully be getting a replacement tomorrow and head on to El Salvador
about mid-day.

Don´t know when or if we´ll get to write any more. Just remember that
no news is good news.

–eric & ashley

 

Then I shut it all down and went to go eat.

During lunch we began discussing how it was we were all supposed to get to El Salvador, now that our plans had changed. Originally, Marcello was going to drive us there himself, but since our departure time had changed to Monday afternoon at the earliest, he didn’t think he could. The reason for this is that Marcello’s first major children’s camp was to begin at the campground on Monday and he, as its leader, needed to be there. The next plan to come up was to send us all to El Salvador by the Central American equivalent of a Greyhound bus. These were supposed to be very nice and air-conditioned, so we could ride there in comfort. Sounded just fine to us. The only real issue was to make sure that this CA bus line would allow us to carry the enormous and heavy amount of luggage that we had to bring with us. If not, it was no good to us.

Marcello had to leave on errands, but he assured us he would find out how much luggage we could take. Meanwhile we decided that it was unlikely that any bus-line was going to let us have three massive suitcases each, plus multiple carry-on bags, so it was probably best if we consolidated as much of the medicine into as few bags as possible.

We also spent much of the afternoon popping the pre-natal vitamins out of their little blister packs and pre-dosing them into baggies, just so we saved that much more room. While quiet work, it was painful as the blisters kept jabbing under our thumbnails, ripping the skin there and causing our thumbs to ache fiercely. It was during this time that Butch once again made the mistake of falling asleep in our presence, so we defaced him with little hair-scrunchies and sunglasses.

By 5p, Marcello had not returned and we were getting really antsy about the situation with the luggage. Even after consolidation, we still had loads and loads more luggage than was likely to be accepted. Oswald happened by around then, so we asked him to phone the bus-line for us and inquire. After he got off the phone, he explained that the bus-line was only going to allow us one 25 pound suitcase each. We laughed and laughed and then got worried again.

Presently Marcello arrived and we broke the news to him. He didn’t seem surprised about the bus/luggage situation, nor did he seem at all worried. In fact, he sat down to watch highlights from the most recent soccer championship matches. Marcello almost always has an air of cool collectedness about him. Ashley wouldn’t let the matter rest, though. She kept asking him how exactly we were supposed to get to El Salvador.

Marcello just kept saying, “Don’t you worry. We will get you to El Salvador.”

I wasn’t worried. See, I recognized in Marcello the soul of a Wheeler Dealer. I’ve known a number of Wheeler Dealers in my life and while they can often be terribly frustrating in their methodology or apparent lack thereof, they always get the job done. They might not do so exactly on time and they might have to resort to underhanded tactics or call in some favors to accomplish their goal, but they always accomplish it. Ashley, however, wasn’t content unless she got some specifics. After all, some of the bags we had with us belonged to team members back home and she had promised to return them and she was worried that Marcello’s plan might involve leaving empty luggage behind.

Finally, I think just to get her off his back, Marcello told us that he would personally drive us and all of our luggage to El Salvador on Monday afternoon, or at least as far as the border depending on whether the team from San Salvador could meet us there.

“Now will you let me watch my game?”

“Yes. Thank you,” Ashley said.

We dined on a never-ending supply of Marcello’s wife’s home-made pizza. We stuffed ourselves stupid, then sat on the couch with Marcello’s children and watched Spongebob Squarepants in Spanish, until Oswald signaled us it was time to go.

We rode in Oswald’s car as he drove us to his home in another neighborhood in Guatemala City. At night the city is very much in armed-fortress mode and there is very little traffic out, at least on the roads we drove. We spoke only a little on the way there, as neither he nor we speak much of the other’s language.

Oswald and Rita’s home was in another gated neighborhood. It too had the fortress like garage door and a front door beyond that. Inside, the place was small but comfortable with a large kitchen and a beautiful brick archway dividing the living area from the dining room and kitchen.

Rita speaks very good English. She and Oswald were wonderful hosts to us and sat up answering all of Ashley’s questions about the pregnancy and its difficulties. Rita said she would be undergoing some additional tests soon and that they would know by the following week whether they would need to induce labor two months early or not.

Before we went to bed, Rita warned us not to be surprised if we ran into someone else in the apartment, as there was another person living there. Her name was Christina and she was there with her husband Cody and foster daughter Mia Rene. We said we’d keep an eye out for them.

It felt good to sleep together in a real bed for the first time in over a week. My snoozing was only disturbed briefly by some conversations I could hear from outside in the street. This neighborhood was still fairly active even in the wee hours, so the conversations of neighbors hanging out on the curb were audible, though I couldn’t understand them, so it just became background noise to my slumber.

We had no way of knowing that the following day would be the most exciting, eventful and dangerous of our entire trip.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Saturday, March 26, 2005

Saturday morning brought yet another late rise for most of the camp, but not for me. I still wasn’t able to do much power sleeping. So I got up, and headed back to the showers for yet another attempt at washing my clothes. This time things went much better. I’d left the clothes from my second cleaning attempt soaking in the real Woolite all night, so they were quite willing to suds up that morning. I washed out every last dirty item I’d brought and spent a fine few minutes laying everything out on the concrete steps. The steps might not have been OSHA-approved, but their concrete railing turned out to be a terribly effective clothes dryer. And with the wind blowing as much as it was that morning, you always knew when your clothes were dry because the wind would whip them over the edge of the rail and into the red dirt. *BING*

After breakfast and our morning devotional with Butch, Marcello took those of us who wanted to go on a tour of the camp itself. We started by climbing back up the big hill right to the zip-line area where we could get a look at the camp in its entirety. It was extremely hot atop the hill. In fact, while considerably less humid, the day seemed far hotter than just about any day of the trip thus far. I was glad I’d worn a hat and sunscreen to keep from being burnt to a crisp.

Marcello explained that almost exactly one year before, all of the land that we could see was simply farmland—however, it was farmland up for sale. Marcello had been looking for a place that Word of Life could build a permanent camp structure that could be used year-round. After much searching and prayer, he learned of the farmland and came out to see it. He had no money whatsoever with which to even make a down-payment and no real means to secure any kind of loans, but he could see how ideal the land was for such a camp. The only other thing he had was faith.

During one of their previous visits, Marcello brought Rick Brooks and some other Nehemiah Network missionaries to the site and explained his plan. He showed them where he wanted to put the first buildings, the cabins, the bano-houses and everything else. They didn’t know quite what to say at first, for Nehemiah Network doesn’t have that kind of money on its own. However, they too have faith and know that God can make the necessary arrangements when it comes to helping his people accomplish his work. Within weeks of beginning the project, individuals and organizations came forward asking how they could help. The land was soon purchased. Within a short time later, a work team came in and began building the first kitchen building. More prayers were made and more money came in. They soon had cabins and shower-houses and with the help of more work-teams the foundations and beginning structure for the pavilion. The zip-line was also added as was a climbing-wall and basketball court. And the week before we arrived, the men’s cabins were completed.

We’d seen some of this construction ourselves throughout the week, with work continuing on the pavilion’s facade and the completion of the rock road and a sidewalk. The basketball court was next to their sites. He explained that he’d had no money to start the basketball court so he had traded his car to a local hardware store for the materials needed. After they got the court finished, his car stopped working and the hardware store owner demanded a refund. About that time, more money came in so he was able to do so.

An amazing amount of work had been accomplished in just a year and every bit of it had been fully paid for.

Marcello isn’t finished, though. He has a great plan for expanding the camp even further. However, Marcello’s goal is not to simply raise buildings for the sake of doing so. Sure, he might appear insane to the average Joe who has to ride with him, but he is not. there is much method to his perceived madness. He loves the Lord and has made it his life’s mission to serve by witnessing. He intends to fill the camp with people as often as possible, so that they can have ongoing weekly summer camps as well as mission housing for groups such as ours. There are also plans to possibly expand the camground itself onto some adjacent property. He asked us all to be in prayer about this matter, so I pass the request on to you here.

After Marcello spoke to us, one of the missionaries, Douglas, came up and began setting up the zip-line. We all watched as he strapped himself into the zip-line harness, clipped it to the pulley that he’d installed on the line itself, double-checked his rigging and then ran off the short running platform built onto the side of the hill. Douglas flew down the line, hanging probably 40 feet off the ground at the lowest point of the valley between tall hills. Before he was even a quarter of the way into his journey, though, he leaned back and flipped upside down, waving to us as he continued across. That’s when we noticed he was barefoot. He flew, barefoot and upside down across the valley, then, just before he reached the other side of the hill, he righted himself and came to a landing. We all clapped and were terribly impressed at this show. Douglas unclipped himself from the pulley, un-clipped the pulley from the wire and then charged back up the rocky face of the hill, still barefooted, to where we stood on the top. You could not get more macho than that and I think we all felt a bit of disappointment that this guy had been so good, not to mention tough of foot, so soon out of the gate. Didn’t leave a lot of room for us tender-footed Gringos to be impressive on this thing.

After this, we began to take turns with the zip-line. The only drawback to this was that while we had three sets of harnesses, meaning two people could be getting harnessed up while one zipped down the line, we only had one pulley with which to zip. So the person who went down the line had to run back up before the next person could go. I’d say most of the team members who went down the line were ready and willing to do it. For a few, though, it was a tough choice to go. We had more than one person who had to conquer their fear of heights in order to go and one of them—I don’t want to say her name so as not to embarrass her, but it was Michelle—turned around mid-way down and mouthed “NEVER AGAIN!” at us. She was still proud she had done it and we of her.

As for me, I wasn’t really concerned about falling off the wire on the way across—I was more concerned with what I was going to do once I got off the ramp. I’d been watching most of the other folks go and most of them were turning upside down and doing similar things on the way. I wanted to do something different, yet memorable with my turn, but was unsure what might qualify. I didn’t want to turn upside down—not that I was afraid to, but it had so been DONE, already. The only thing that really jumped out at me was to go down the zip-line with the harness on backwards, so that I would be stomach to the ground instead of butt to the ground. I envisioned running off the end of the ramp, thrusting my arm out and bending one leg in classic super-hero flight pose and singing “I Am Superman” all the way over. The staff had even mentioned such a move was possible. But was it wise?

The thing I had to seriously consider was that this zip line had not been designed to accommodate Gringos. See your average Guatemalan is much smaller than your average American. I don’t mean that Americans are all big and fat by comparison, (though that would probably be a valid observation), I mean that Guatemalans are simply smaller people who therefore don’t weigh as much as we do. This zip-line was constructed with their average weight in mind and I noticed that when some of the guys went off the ramp they came dangerously close to hitting the rocks just beyond the ramp. And these were guys much smaller than my fat butt. The two people who came closest to my weight were Dwan, a former professional football player, and Tom, a muscular guy who’s about half a foot taller than me. Dwan came within centimeters of losing his butt on a rock as he went off the ramp. And Tom had to lift himself up by the bungee cord pulley connector to avoid hitting. I was afraid that I might hit going off normally, let alone the pain and humiliation of scraping off my entire front by attempting a Superman. I decided that it was definitely an unwise move on my part and should be left to a light-weight girl. I needed to come up with something else.

At last, after about 12 of the team had gone, it was my turn and I was given a harness. I gave Butch my camera and asked him to take some video footage of my trip.

“Oh, you don’t want to take footage on the way down?” Butch asked. He’d done precisely that on his way and said that it was easy to do.

“Nope. I’m gonna need my hands for other things,” I said. My new plan was to leap off the ramp, lift my legs to get beyond the rocks, then lie back in the air with my hands wrapped behind my head in Relaxation Pose and zip down like that. Seemed distinctive and funny enough to work and would save me grievous injury. After I got harnessed up, Sandra Waddell asked me if I would like to borrow her sandals for the trip. I was in flip-flops, which I didn’t think were great footwear for a run back up the rocky hill, but I wasn’t going to complain either since Douglas had taken it barefooted. I decided to take Sandra up on her offer, though.

Soon my harness was clipped to the pulley and Marcello Hounko gave me one last harness test and said I was ready. Without hesitation, I grabbed my bungee and ran off the edge of the ramp. My weight immediately pulled down on the high-tension wire and I dropped a bit. I had been trying to remember to pull my legs up to avoid the rocks, but I evidently didn’t pull them up enough because I smacked the top of my right foot hard on a rock and screamed a mighty “Ow!!!” I’m rather proud that “Ow” was all I screamed. I was then presented with a choice: A) I could tend to my wounded foot and see if it was broken; or B) I could not waste my trip down and go ahead with my Relaxation Pose despite the pain and worry about my foot later. I chose B. It worked splendidly too. I spun in the air on the way down, lay back in relaxed pose and grinned for the camera. The trip lasted less than 40 seconds.

On the other side, I landed on my good foot and then helped Douglas unhook me from the line. My injured foot did hurt, but not all that bad. I figured it would hurt worse later on, but I probably had a few minutes to get up the hill with it without too much problem. I grabbed up the pulley and started running.

About mid-way up the hill, my limp became more pronounced, but I made it up fine. Once I got Sandr

a’s sandals off, I could see that my foot was scraped on the top, but not horribly. It was already turning a little blue, though. After returning Sandra’s shoes, I decided I’d had enough of the sun and adventure for the moment and needed to take my foot to the nearest reputable doctor and/or near-doctor wife.

She pronounced, “Eh, keep an eye on it.”

I hobbled up the hill to the coolness of the men’s cabin. It felt so nice inside. My fellow team-mate Aman was putting up the hammock he’d purchased in Antigua, stringing it between two ends of a cross-beam and debating whether or not he would sleep in it that evening. I sat on my bunk, looked my foot over a bit and chatted with the guys.

Someone had brought a digital thermometer and David H. had put it in the sun at the edge of the cliff outside our door. He would then check it every five minutes to see how hot it read. When I came in, the temperature was 130 degrees. Within 20 minutes, it was up to 135, officially the hottest weather I’d ever been in. We had trouble believing this reading, though, so Butch stuck his own digital thermometer out beside it for a second opinion. It made it all the way to 132 and then stopped working altogether. I’ve no doubt these devices were probably picking up reflected heat from the surrounding ground, but that was still amazingly hot and made me look forward to our trip to the beach later in the afternoon.

I would later question the wisdom of that longing.

Around 3 we began loading up to go to the beach. I put on my swimming trunks and grabbed my backpack with camera, towel and water bottle and once again went up to sit on the bus in the blistering heat with all the rest of the beach-going team. We didn’t all go to the beach either. Many opted out in favor of staying back at the camp to ride on the camp’s personal water craft, or, like Ash and Dr. Allen, to stay behind and work on getting some meds counted for our El Salvador mission the following week.

I didn’t really know what to expect from a Guatemalan beach. The information I’d read about the beaches here suggested they were composed of volcanic black sand, which was something I never thought I’d see outside of the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve been to plenty of white sand beaches, but I was up for seeing some black sand.

Oswald drove and half an hour later we arrived. We weren’t actually at the beach yet, but were just at the pre-beach area. This consisted of an enormous dirt field used for a parking area. We left the bus there and followed Oswald, Alex and Astrid back to the road and down toward a harbory-looking area. The road itself was crowded with people, most of whom were leaving for the day. There were plenty of other folks standing around, though, and we seemed to be of interest to many of them. Not surprising, I suppose, as we were the only Gringos in sight and pretty much stood out from the crowd.

After our adventures in Antigua yesterday, I found myself wondering what the pickpocket population was like around here. Or even the guys who beat you up and take your stuff population. I was already feeling foolish for having brought my backpack when all I really needed was a towel, some water and maybe my camera. I was just imagining the problems having brought this thing was going to cause once we got to the beach itself. Someone would have to stay behind to guard all our stuff while the rest of us went in the water.

We weren’t even to the beach yet, though. In fact, you couldn’t really get to the beach by foot. We found that out when we arrived at a small muddy dock area where a number of small green and red ferry boats waited. Here you could pay the ferrymen to take you across a small inlet of the sea to a barrier island where the beach actually was. We had just enough room to get our entire party onto one of the ferry boats and we then set off across the inlet. My inner environmentalist was distressed to see that the water of the inlet was filled with floating plastic bottles and other garbage, much of which had washed up on the shoreline. It was just another reminder that we weren’t in Kansas any more.

On the other side of the inlet we still had a ways to go before reaching the beach. A path lead from the shore of the inlet and became a covered aisle between a cluster of low buildings crowded with more people. Most of these buildings were nothing more than roofed off sections of dirt where people had set up cocinas selling food and some with tables selling goods such as clothing, towels, trinkets and souvenirs. These all had a roadside stand unofficial feel to them that I don’t think most Americans are accustomed to. (I, like most Gringos, am suspicious of anything that doesn’t come with a factory-sealed wrapper and colorful label. I’m not saying this is right, I’m just saying it is the case.)

As we made our way through the aisle, it became increasingly difficult to keep up with one another. I was still limping from my earlier injury, but I was trying my best to keep up with Andrew and Alex who were just ahead of me. At the same time, there were several young ladies in our group who were behind me and who I felt responsible for keeping an eye on as well. We may have been in no danger whatsoever, but I didn’t like the looks we were getting from some of the kids and men standing on the edges of this narrow aisle and I wanted to make sure we made it to the beach and back with all of our group.

About mid-way through this crowded aisle was a dance club. I say dance club, because that’s the nearest description I can come up with. What it really was was another roofed off area with a dirt floor, very loud dance music and, I think, a glitter ball. The music was extremely loud, though and I suddenly realized I was very very hot. How could people dance in this weather? The aisle also seemed to narrow near the entrance to the club, forcing us all to squish together a bit tighter with the strangers around us.

Then, as I watched, one of the men standing on the sides detached himself from his position and squeezed up beside Andrew, just ahead of me. The man reached out his right arm and slipped it around Andrew’s waist. At first I thought he was going for Andrew’s wallet, but he made no such move for any pocket. Instead, his arm just rested there on Andrew’s back. Now, the thing you have to know about Andrew is that he’s in the Air Force and is not a weak or small individual. He’s not a person who’s prone to fighting, but I have no doubt he could handle himself in one. As Andrew explained to me later, though, at that moment he wasn’t so much concerned about the man with his arm around him as he was about how many friends that man might have nearby. Not a bad thing to be wondering about, considering our circumstances. He therefore didn’t really want to piss this guy off but at the same time he wasn’t putting up with unwelcome personal contact. So Andrew gave him a hard shoulder, avoided eye contact and continued walking. I saw this and became immediately concerned that maybe we shouldn’t have come to the beach after all. I mean, how many movies set in foreign lands have scenes like this occur just before the ninja’s show up and kill everyone?

The next thing I knew, Alex was at Andrew’s other side and put his own arm around Andrew, pulling him away from the stranger while at the same time giving the stranger a serious stink-eye. The stranger fell back and we all passed beyond the dance club and on to the beach.

I’m not precisely sure what I expected from the beach, but the sea of garbage we found wasn’t quite it. I don’t suppose I should have been surprised at the amount of trash present, because we’d certainly seen a lot already on our way there, in the inlet water and in the aisle. The beach itself was far worse. There were empty bottles, both plastic and glass, old Styrofoam cups, sunscreen bottles and food wrappers simply everywhere atop and beneath the black sand beach. My inner environmentalist was screaming in terror as I took in this sight. And while there were several trash receptacles to be found, they were not spilling over with trash. In fact, no one seemed to have noticed them at all.

I stood there, feeling bewildered. I’m sure you can find filthy beaches in America too, but I’ve never been to one where the trash was so completely out of control. I just kept thinking “How?” over and over. I felt overwhelmed by it all, not only the trash but also the fear I’d experienced in the aisle on our way in. I think Andrew felt this way too because he asked me if I’d seen the strange man who had put his arm around Andrew back in the aisle. I told him I had. Andrew said it was an experience that had raised his hackles that his fight or flight instinct had been definitely activated by it. We had no idea what the guy wanted or why he had done that, but we couldn’t conceive of it being an innocent move.

At that point, our beach-going experience didn’t seem like it was panning out to be a good one. Then Astrid came over to us and told everyone to follow her. She led us over to a restaurant/bar that fronted a kind of beach-side motel. In the courtyard of this motel, there was a set of curving concrete steps, with more dangerously exposed rebar and no rail, that led up to the second floor area for the bar. It was a palm-frond roofed structure with lots of bamboo and more plastic tables and chairs. There were a few customers hanging out at the tables there, but mostly the place was empty enough that we could use it as a base of operations. It did offer a fantastic view of the Pacific and a less fantastic one of the filthy beach below. From our new perch, the scene below now looked far more like any typical American beach at Spring Break. We could then see some of the usual beach-scene items, like giant inflatable beer bottles and portable canopies and umbrellas. It no longer seemed quite as sinister as it had when we were down in it earlier, shaking off the tremors from our experience in the aisle. Now it just looked like a filthy beach full of people who were there to have a good time. Since a few of our crew said they would stay behind and guard everyone’s stuff, we figured we’d join the beach-goers and head for the water too.

We walked along the shore, moving down the beach away from the crowds, who were mostly gathered near the aisle to the ferries, and eventually we walked out of the fields of garbage and onto a far less crowded stretch of black sand beach. From there we hit the water proper.

I’d not been in the Pacific in a very long time. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time, I was so young. However, I figure that having been born in California and having spent a year in Guam, it’s pretty likely that at some point my parents plunked me in the Pacific drink. We’d been warned before coming here that the water would be rough and it certainly was. I’m far more used to the Atlantic beaches along the North Carolina coast, but this one had waves that didn’t play around. They weren’t exactly huge waves but they packed a wallop that could surprise you. One of my favorite things to do is to try and stand still and let a wave wash over me, remaining as steady as I can against it. Not with these waves, I didn’t. These waves would smash into you, dunk you under, rub your face in the sand a bit and then spit on you. It’s kind of a rush, though, to be at the mercy of nature in that way, though.

At one point, I got a bit further out than was probably wise and found myself treading water. Not usually a big concern for me, but I was having difficulty returning to the shore, and I’m a pretty good swimmer. I was expending a great deal more energy in trying to return to the shore than I was getting good results from. I was afraid I might be caught in a rip current and if so I knew I would need to swim along the shoreline until I broke free of it. (Watching the geek channels pays off, kids!) If I was in a rip-current, I don’t think it was a very one, at least only as far out as I was. It didn’t take very long at all for me to come out of it and get closer to shore.

We stayed in the water body surfing and having a great time. I was glad the beach had turned out to be a not entirely scary experience. After about 45 minutes, Astrid called us all out to leave. Once we were out on the beach, we saw that Jenna was still in the water and was farther out than looked safe, caught in the riptide. Andrew rushed in to help her while the rest of us prayed. I think it turned out, though, that she wasn’t so much caught in a riptide as she just hadn’t heard Astrid calling.

Back at the beachside motel, we showered the black sand off of us, as best we could, and gathered up our things to leave. I had brought a bottle of water in my backpack, so I took it over to the edge of the second story and leaned on the bamboo railing while I drank. I looked out on the water for what I figured would be the final time. Then, just as I’d finished almost all of my water, the bottle slipped through my fingers, bounced of the railing and disappeared over the side. My immediate impulse was to go down and get it and throw it away, but as I looked over the side to see where it fell I found I couldn’t tell which of the 100 odd bottles already on the beach below was mine. I was amused and horrified at the same time.

Instead of going directly back to the aisle’s entrance to make our exit, we took an alternate route through the back “courtyard” of the motel. There were families grilling out there, very much in vacation mode. Our route came out onto a back avenue that eventually intersected with the aisle. Once on the aisle we tried to keep in much closer contact with one another, particularly while passing the dance club again. The strange man from before didn’t approach us a second time.

As we cast off in our ferry to go back across the inlet, I noticed that the gentleman seated next to me, a fellow Gringo by the looks of him, was NOT a part of our mission team. I think he had just snuck aboard, realizing that the ride was paid for and that he would at least not stand out to local eyes among us. I didn’t speak to him, but he looked a bit nervous about the whole thing.

Once on the other side, we continued to try and stick together as we passed back along the street and toward the parking lot. As I walked, two of the girls in our group dashed up and took hold of my backpack and asked if it was okay if they followed along with me. They said that two young men from the crowd near the ferries had shouted something at them in Spanish and then had begun following them. I told them they should walk in front of me, if they wanted. When they looked back the men had dropped their pursuit.

That night, after supper, we held a benefit auction for future Word of Life campers. As Marcello explained to us, it costs around $35 American money to send a child to camp for a week at Word of Life. So the items we were auctioning would go toward that goal. We had been told in advance of the trip that this would occur, so some of the team members had actually brought items to auction, such as was the case with a number of items of jewelry—some specifically made for this auction. Other team members just took advantage of what we had on hand to auction. For instance, Ashley had brought a barely used tube of body lotion, which she auctioneered herself and raised $35. The rest of the time Rick Brooks was our auctioneer.

As you can imagine, with an oral surgeon and a number of doctors as bidders, some of the items went for quite a bit of money. In most cases, the items weren’t worth nearly the amount paid for them, but that wasn’t the point of the auction in the first place.

I wound up buying a bar of Irish Spring soap for $35. I’d actually had my eye on it already and was willing to pay the $35 for it before the bidding even began. When it came up for auction, Alex, Oswald and some of the other missionaries began screaming “Eriiic, Eriiiic!” and then holding up their water bottles to represent the fake Woolite bottle from my story the night before, indicating that I really needed some soap. I went along with it and made the winning bid for $35. Unfortunately, I was not paying attention to what Rick was doing and looked away in Alex and Oswald’s direction for a moment, so I didn’t see Rick hurl the box of soap at me. Just as I turned back around, the box hit me in the side of the face, actually glancing off the bone just to the side of my eye socket. To everyone else, it looked like the box had hit me right in the eye. I played it up, wobbling my head and saying, “Hey, I didn’t need that eye.” Rick was mortified that he might have injured me, but I told him I was fine. Still, it was another close call in what felt like a day of close call wounds.

The auction wound up raising $1686, which will send a total of 48 kids to camp there.

We wrapped up our evening around 10 p.m., as we knew we would all need to be up early in the morning to head out to the airport. Most of the team would be flying back to the United States, leaving Dr. Allen, Mary Ann, Andrew, Flo, Butch, Ashley and I to head over to El Salvador the following week. We knew Sunday was going to be a long day.

We had no clue just difficult Sunday would prove to be for us.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Friday, March 25, 2005

UNLAXATION DAY 1

I wanted to sleep all the way `til 9, but found myself wide awake at 7:30. I don’t know if I was just restless or if I was just too cold from the double blast of air-conditioning, but I was awake. It had actually been quite blissful to sleep so cold, but after a few hours my body had cooled down and I was forced to retreat beneath the thin blanket I’d been using as stuffing for my pillow-case. So at 7:30 I got up and grabbed my camera and headed outside to see if I could find cool stuff to take pictures of.

I decided I needed a photographic mission for the morning and that mission was to photograph a snake. So far on the journey, we’d seen a few hefty bugs and one of the guys said he’d even seen a little scorpion in one of the bano stalls, but so far I’d not seen anything fangy and dangerous. I thought it would be great to take a picture of a snake, if only to show the image to my ophiciophobic wife, (that means “skeered of snakes,” for those of us in West Virginia). Ash had been a bit worried about snakes throughout our trip. Someone had told her that the most deadly snake in the country is a tiny little snake that likes to hide under leaves and brush and then viciously bite anyone who accidentally steps on it. Most of the camp was red dirt, though, so we weren’t too worried about leaves.

I walked from my bunk-house onto a clear path that ran through the rocks and shrubs on the side of the tallest hill at the camp. I kept my eyes peeled for snakes, figuring if they were on the path I’d see them. After more walking I found that my path indeed began to run underneath a long stretch of leaves and brush. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops–not exactly snake-proof gear–but I still didn’t want to wuss out and turn back. So I began carefully making my way through the leaves, trying to step on as many rocks as possible. When I was in the very middle of the leaf section, some birds that had been hiding in a nearby bush suddenly flushed out, frightening me nigh unto requiring a clean pair of drawers. Still no snake.

The path eventually lead down the hill onto a dirt road that ran back toward an open-air structure with a palm-frond roof as well as a second site that was only a foundation for a similar structure. We were to learn later that this will be the new dining hall and kitchen for the camp. The camp itself will be used primarily as a summer-camp for kids and several more bunk-houses and shower facilities will soon be built to help accommodate more kids, in addition to the new kitchen and dining hall. This place is impressive enough now, but it’s going to be even better once Marcello has a few more buildings.

Dr. Allen was up for a morning stroll and he and I walked along the dirt road that curved around the bottom of the biggest hill chatting about our week. I like Dr. Allen and Mary Ann a whole lot. Ashley had done two medical rotations at Dr. Allen’s clinic–her first one and her third from last, which she was technically continuing on this mission. She had been saying how great to work with he and Mary Ann were for months, but I’d not met either of them until we attended the wedding of his daughter in February. I was glad to have gotten to know them both on this mission. And I haven’t written nearly enough about how great Mary Ann was in the pharmacy. We sometimes get under each others feet, and I’ve no doubt that our methods often clash, but in such cases I always tried to remember that between the two of us she is far far far more likely to know what she’s talking about, being a nurse and all, so I should always defer to her judgement.

We continued along the road until it intersected with a very steep road that lead to the top of the hill. We parted ways there, for due to his bad knees he wasn’t keen on walking up that hill just yet.

Near the top of the hill were rows and rows of logs that had been laid down to provide seating for a massive campfire pit. This is where future campers would settle at the end of their day to sing around the campfire. Further up from there at the actual top of the hill I could see a fantastic view of the entire camp property. After gazing around at the lake and surrounding camp buildings below me, I went to take a look at the zip-line.

The zip-line was a thick metal cable that was stretched between a large concrete anchor on that hill to another one on the next hill over. This was a device that would allow a fully harnessed up person to “zip” along the wire on pulleys, high above the ground, moving from one hill to the other very quickly. The pulleys and rigs weren’t attached yet, but we’d been told we’d be able to play on the zip-line on Saturday. The line itself was pretty far above the ground, but I was already looking forward to trying it out.

I took a few pictures of the camp up there, but I never found a snake.

I ate breakfast with Esdras that morning, talking more about his education plans and his concerns about seminary. Mid-way through our chat, there came a tremendous cry from the far side of the dining pavillion. A group of the translators and missionaries were hoisting the youngest member of the mission/translator staff, Kevin Herrera, over their shoulders and into the air.

I haven’t written about Kevin before because our paths didn’t cross a lot during the course of our mission work. However, he was kind of the adopted mascott of camp. Kevin was probably 14 years old, but a fairly fluent English speaker. He was a very outgoing kid, always smiling, always happy and often playing practical jokes on anyone and everyone. During one day in Pasaco, Kevin offered me a piece of chewing gum. I chewed it to find that it was packed full of some kind of intense flavor crystals that made it at least twice as powerful as an Altoid mint. Kevin was expecting some sort of extreme reaction from me and was very disappointed when I turned out to like the gum.

“Where did you get it?” I asked.

“Oh, the store,” he said.

“What’s it called again? I’ve got to get some of that to take home.”

He later tried the same trick on Ashley, with very similar results. Other team members, however, weren’t so immune to the powerful gum and Kevin became known as a trickster.

I still don’t know what Kevin did to provoke his fellow translators and missionaries, but it must have been something worthy of collective revenge. We watched watched as the group of locals hoisted Kevin above their heads then lowered him to carry by each of his limbs as they took him away from the pavilion and down the hill. This could only mean one thing: Kev was getting dumped in the lake.

Esdras and I shot up from our seats and ran to follow. I ran down the hill, trying to get my camera out of its bag and trying not to collide with Andrew, who was also sprinting through the rocks and brush trying to get ahead of the Kevin-carrying revenge squad. I’m amazed we didn’t break something vital in our dash down the hill, but we did get ahead of them. They carried Kevin down onto the small dock, thoughtfully removed his shoes for him, then heaved him back and forth a few times and then let him fly. Kevin splashed down in the four foot deep water. He came up grinning, but soon started splashing everyone on the dock with the now muddy water. His tormentors, satisfied that they had meted out justice for the day, retreated back to their breakfasts leaving the rest of us to stay around and take pictures of the soaked lad. The lake bottom is nothing but mud and silt, so Kevin’s formerly white socks were now deep black.

After breakfast, we said our last goodbyes to the members of the local team who were departing for Guatemala City. Our departure wasn’t far behind.

Throughout the week, I had noticed a disturbing pattern with our medical team and with myself, which repeated itself Friday morning. Whenever it came time to go anywhere by bus, the whole lot of us would climb the hill at camp to where the busses were parked, board the busses and then sit in them sweating like pigs in a sauna as the last few stragglers finally made their way up the hill to board as well. We could have just waited outside, where it was still hot but not sauna hot. But noooo, every single time we all climbed on the bus and sweated and muttered about the slow people holding us up and how we wished we could get on the road so we could get some wind on us and how next time we should just wait outside. Every. Single. Time. And medical personnel are supposed to be smart.

Our trip to Antigua was in the full-sized bus, the one with all of its seats, but there was still not enough room for everyone. (We found this out only after everyone had piled on the hot bus like morons YET AGAIN. What is it about such hot weather that makes otherwise intelligent people, myself included, pile into a giant tin can in 120 degree heat, repeatedly?) In order to create more seating, one of the pavilion benches was brought in and slid down the bus aisle. It was a tight fit for everyone.

Ashley nearly stayed behind for the day, because she was feeling ill and the heat was really getting to her. Once the bus was under way, though, the air-circulation cooled us off quite a bit and she began to feel better.

Most of the team had changed out around $50 in U.S. currency for the equivalent in quetzals, the Guatemalan currency. Due to an exchange rate of about 7 quetzals for every dollar, we felt like truly wealthy people. Unfortunately, Antigua is not only famous for it’s Holy Week festivities but also for its pickpockets. We were also warned to keep all wallets and important papers in front pockets and to keep a sharp eye out for trouble and not to leave anything on the bus, because thieves were likely to come onto the bus while we were gone.

The drive to Antigua was nearly as long than that back to Guatemala City. Antigua is to the south-west of G-City. We were therefore able to skirt around G-City and on into Antigua.

Oswald drove us. Every time he got behind the wheel, he proved to us just how fantastic a driver he is. Driving a school bus in Central America isn’t as easy as in the states. Most of the streets in these smaller towns are very narrow and difficult to maneuver in a car, let alone a big white bus. Even when hurtling the wrong way down one-way streets with lots of tight corners, Oswald had it under control.

We didn’t have nearly as much trouble getting into Antigua as had been predicted. We were able to drive right up to the edge of the down town proper, passing fantastic ancient churches and ruins along the way. There was a line of parked buses that we had to go by in order to get to the edge of the down-town area. Once there, Oswald stopped to let us out, the plan being for him to find a place to park the bus and catch up with us later. Rick and Butch told us that we would soon be splitting into smaller groups each with a translator, but first there were a couple of places of interest that they wanted to show us. After that, we were free to go.

The first thing I need to say about Antigua–the first thing we really noticed upon departing our bus–is that the climate was FANTASTIC! It was still warm, of course, but probably in the low to mid-80s. It was also not at all humid and there was a constant light breeze blowing that made it perfectly comfortable. I’d somehow been expecting a sweat-fest, but should have known that since we had returned to higher elevation it would be nice. This comfort put us all in great spirits and got the unlaxation off to a proper start.

We walked down from the bus into the town itself, following Butch, where we soon found ourselves hanging a left onto an unpaved street. The street looked as though its paving had been dug up at some point in the recent past in preparation for repaving. As a result, the narrow sidewalks were often over a foot and a half above the street itself.

Our first stop of interest was a beautiful hotel. To enter it you had to cut through a cluster of street-peddlers who were camped out at its entrance awaiting the tourists who came and went. They attempted to sell us beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries until we were able to get through them and into the hotel. Once inside, we found ourselves on a wide stone walk that ran along a lush and fountain-studded open air garden that lead to the hotel’s mostly open air lobby. When I say mostly open air, I mean that the front desk, while covered by a roof, was still exposed to the air from the open garden that it bordered. The desk itself was an ancient-looking carved wood structure that most of us deemed “awesome” in true American fashion.

We walked through the garden, taking photos of each other with the enormous parrots that hung from perches there, or with the various art exhibits on display.

Further past the lobby was an alcove art gallery with some of the most disturbing art I’ve seen in a while. I only took pictures of one of them because I was a little scared of seeing any more of them pop up during one of Butch’s slide shows. I was not as afraid of some of the sculpture on display in the lobby, though. Across from the alcove was a lovely restaurant that had both a covered area and an outdoor patio area side by side. We went out to the patio area that was not a part of the restaurant itself and walked around enjoying the atmosphere and looking at the wares of the ladies who were selling Guatemalan souvenirs. They had some marvelous things, such as knitted hats and bags, jewelry, masks and crafts of all sorts, plus the standard assortment of beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries. As we looked, though, some of our interpreters came up and slyly told us not to buy anything there because the prices were quite inflated compared to the Indian Markets further into Antigua itself. We kept our quetzals in our pockets.

After a lengthy headcount to make sure we were all still there, we back out to the street where we practically had to fight our way through the peddlers gathered at the entrance with their beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries. We then followed missionary extraordinaire Marcello Hounko (no relation to Marcello Diez) as he lead us back along the unpaved street and a few blocks further into the city. As we went, more peddlers came up with more beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries but I think we all steadfastly refused.

Marcello H. led us to a genuine Guatemalan Jade factory, which turns out to be one of the only officially sanctioned ones in that part of the world. The factory is where mined jade is brought and shaped with diamond instruments and grinders, fashioned into a wide variety of objects that are then shipped around the world. The factory itself was not in operation that day due to the holidays but we were given a tour of the area and shown some beautiful examples of the kind of thing they do there and told a bit of the history of Jade itself in Central America.

After the tour, we retired to the gift shop where we were served complimentary locally grown coffee in little stoneware cups that we could keep. They also gave us little knitted rainbow colored drawstring pouches on a string necklace that contained a small doll. This is a traditional Guatemalan gift to bring good luck. I went ahead and put mine on. I didn’t know it at the time, but the pouch, if not the doll within, would become my dearest friend in the coming days.

Upon leaving the Jade factory, we were set free to do what we wanted. It was around 3:30 at that point, so we agreed to meet back at the bus area at 5:30. Beyond that we could go off on our own or in groups and there were enough translators to go around for small groups. Ash and I decided it would best to stick close to a group of folks, so we tagged along with a few people to explore the ancient streets. We had to keep repeating the phrase “No gracias!” over and over as wave upon wave of more peddlars came at us.

The streets and architecture of Antigua were amazing to see, particularly with the volcano jutting up from the horizon, looming over us despite being quite a distance away. I don’t think I’ve ever been to some place with such ancient structures. Probably the closest I’ve come was St. Augustine, FL, the oldest city in the United States.

As you might expect at the pinnacle of Holy Week festivities, Antigua was quite crowded. No, really. There were just loads and loads and loads of people, beyond the peddlers. And not only Guatemalans but a wide variety of other nationalities as well. As a writer, I found myself wondering about their backgrounds and reasons for coming to Antigua on this day, (though they were all probably pretty similar, considering the main draw was the holy week festivities).

Occasionally, we would see a shop we wanted to stop in and would do so. I was looking out for interesting masks, as I seem to have collected a few from around the world and thought it might be nice to pick one up. But it couldn’t just be any mask. It had to be something that just jumped out and said, Oh, hey, I’m the mask for you. I didn’t find it in the tiny mask shop we visited, though, so we moved on.

The street we were walking down eventually opened onto Antigua’s main square, an enormous area surrounded by more ancient and beautiful buildings, with peddlers and rolling snack carts every few feet. There was more room to walk around here, but there were also more people to fill up that room. I found the experience kind of overwhelming to view. You couldn’t look at everything and everyone, but there was so much going on around you that you wanted to look at. It kind of pressed emotional buttons within me, and I know it did with Ashley because she was tearing up too.

We continued along the street, leaving the square and traveling on. Our main road eventually intersected a four-lane road system that was lined with more snack carts and little temporary cocinas selling what smelled like tasty but potentially stomach-churning food. We looked things over there, but kept moving, lest temptation to destroy our GI tract become too great.

Soon we came to a row of covered booth shops that sold all manner of souvenir items–mostly T-shirts, dresses, masks, hats, colorful knitted clothing, bright bags and the usual assortment of necklaces, trinkets and reed flutes. Some of our crew were already there shopping, including Dr. Allen and Mary Ann. Mary Ann had bought a bright red knitted bag and was transferring the contents of her pack into it. I noticed again that Dr. Allen was wearing his passport wallet on the outside of his clothing. This seemed a little unwise to me, as I thought those things were meant to be worn beneath your clothes or at least snugly in a pocket. My own I’d put in my velcro closed back pocket, but I’d already removed all of my money from it so that I didn’t have to keep taking it out and calling attention to it. My theory was that pickpockets watch to see which pockets you keep checking and use that as a tell to which pockets they should pick.

We shopped a bit among the items being offered at the booth shops. The ladies that ran the shops didn’t speak much English, but knew a few phrases which they repeated over and over. “Buy for Mama. Buy for my seester. Buy for Mama.”

We didn’t wind up buying anything at those shops, but the same rules applied at the Indian Market, which was only a little way further down the road.

The Indian Market was a cluster of permanent cubbyhole shops, each of which were roofed but which had open air aisles between them, covered by a translucent roof above that. We only thought we’d had trouble with the street peddlers earlier, because a walk through the Indian Market meant a constant attack by aggressive salespeople who didn’t want to accept “No Gracias” for an answer. We had been told by our translators to never pay the asking price for any given item because the shopkeepers expect you to haggle with them and are more than willing to give you a better deal if you do so. The rule of thumb was to try and pay no more than half of the original asking price. However, I found the best way to haggle was to pick up an item, decide you were truly uninterested in it and genuinely attempt to walk away. Then the shopkeepers couldn’t lower their prices fast enough and would do all your haggling for you. And the more disinterested you were, the lower the price went. We didn’t haggle so much as we succumbed to guilt over turning down such terrific bargains. This was, of course, their plan all along.

We found some nice souvenirs to bring home to folks. I found five colorful sun-face ceramic ornaments for the library staff. I actually did try haggling over them, but when I did the calculations, hours later, I was really lowballing my bid and the shopkeeper that sold them to me had every reason to turn down my offer and stick to her guns. I still got away for a steal.

Ash found a pair of jade earrings at another shop and I finally found a wooden mask that I liked. At first, I thought it was because the mask looked very similar to the title character’s Guy Fawkes mask in the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic series V for Vendetta. Later, I realized it also looked quite a bit like me, with its thick eyebrows, goatee and rosy cheeks.

It was 5:15 by the time we decided to head back toward the bus. We should have felt guilty for starting back so late, but we didn’t worry about it as mission leader Rick Brooks was right there at the market with us and was therefore exactly as late as we were.

We started back down the road passing the previous shops and food vendors and on through the main square. We had nearly made it as far as the jade factory when foot traffic came to a sudden halt at an intersection. Passing through the intersection was the last of the Holy Week processionals. This is one of the major features of Holy Week in which citizens pay big money for the privilege of carrying elaborately carved and incredibly heavy “floats” through the streets of the city. These floats depict different aspects of the death of Christ in traditional elaborate Catholic fashion. The float-carriers themselves are elaborately garbed as well and take the float in shifts winding throughout the streets of Antigua.

If we had been just a little bit quicker, we probably could have made it through the intersection. Instead, everyone stopped and watched as floats depicting the burial and resurrection of Christ were carried through. Soon, all the foot traffic that had been behind us reached the place where we stood and the group of us suddenly found ourselves squished up against one another and against the other members of the crowd in a most tight fashion. This was when my paranoia went into overdrive, because it was an atmosphere in which I imagined pickpockets would be lurking. I shouldn’t really have worried about pickpockets in the standing crowd, though, because no one could really move anyway. But after 10 minutes or so, the slow procession had passed by and foot traffic began moving again and suddenly we found ourselves in chaos.

I likened it to being trapped in a busy high school hallway, jostled on every side by moving humanity all trying to go in opposing directions. I found myself trying to keep paths clear for the people around me, some of whom were elderly, while at the same time still trying to keep up with Ashley and the rest of the group. This, we believe, was when the pickpockets really struck, though none of us knew that anyone’s pocket had been picked until we had walked all the way back to our rendezvous point.

“Do you have all of your belongings?” Astrid asked me as we waited for the bus to come.

“Yeah,” I said, patting my back pocket where my passport wallet had been stored. It was still there.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Have you checked everything?”

That’s when I learned that some of us had not made it with all our things. Dr. Allen had arrived at the rendezvous point, looked down to check his passport wallet and found he only had its straps hanging around his neck. His passport, credit cards and a good supply of cash had been in it. Similarly, his wife Mary Ann found that the bottom of her new bag had been slashed, leaving a nice sized hole in it. She had been carrying Dr. Allen’s PDA, which was now missing. Sandra Waddell soon noticed that her bag had been slashed and her wallet taken, though she did still have her passport. Everyone was then asked to check his or her personal items to make sure we still had everything.

I was kind of amazed that I did. My backpack is pretty cheap. It’s one I got for free from a drug rep at a medical conference and has “Relpax” printed on it. It’s handy and light weight, but has open pockets in the back and hangs low enough from my shoulders that anyone could have looked inside or even reached in and I would never have known. Granted, I only had Nutter Butters and a couple of camera wires in there, so maybe no one found anything they wanted. There did seem to be some slashes along one of the pockets, as if someone had attempted to cut into it with a razor, but it had not penetrated the surface of the reinforced fabric.

Butch later told us that upon hearing of Dr. Allen’s missing passport wallet, he started to say, “How could anyone be dumb enough to get their passport stolen?” when he reached down and realized his PDA was also missing. It had been in a buttoned cargo pocket, but the thieves had apparently had no difficulty in gaining access because the button was still buttoned.

In order for Dr. Allen to get his passport replaced, Butch knew they would have to file a police report as soon as possible, so he, Dr. Allen and Marcello Hounko went to the local police station to take care of that. The rest of us piled back on our bus to sit and take stock of our experience. Many of us were angry initially that thieves had done so well off of us. Some even said that they wished they’d been able to catch the thieves in mid-theft. Then, we thought about this a bit more and realized we were probably lucky that we had not caught them. These guys were carrying blades in order to slice open bags and pockets and would likely have had no problem slicing us if it meant getting away.

When Dr. Allen returned, he said there had been a British couple at the police station ahead of him who had been beaten up by a gang of men wielding machetes, who then stole their bags. We frankly got off lucky.

Dinner that night was to be at a restaurant in Guatemala City. We called Marcello Diez ahead to let him know we’d be a bit later than expected due to our adventures with pickpockets. Soon after Dr. Allen returned to the bus, we hit the road.

It took about an hour to get to Guatemala City, but our first stop was actually Marcello’s house. Once there, Marcello saw how cramped the bus was and made the enticing offer that some of the people who felt especially cramped could ride in his nice air-conditioned van instead and be more comfy. There were surprisingly few takers. In retrospect, maybe some of them knew something we didn’t. Ash and I decided that if no one else was scrambling to ride in comfort, we would. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann as well as a handful of others joined us in the van. The trip to the restaurant was just blissful, with nice cool air-conditioning blowing on us the whole way.

We dined that evening at a Sizzler steakhouse/buffet. I was frankly glad to see it, because you know what you’re getting with a Sizzler and my stomach had been feeling a bit achy through the afternoon and I was pretty sure I wasn’t yet shed of my gastronomic adventures of the past few days.

Several of the missionary staff and national medical personnel who lived in Guatemala City joined us there for dinner and we had a great time. We were practically the only folks in the restaurant at that time of night. My stomach ache even decided to subside during dinner, allowing me to enjoy it. However, it roared back into life immediately afterward. I won’t be gross, but I got to know the Sizzler’s bano pretty well over the course of ten minutes. It receives my vote for Best Bano Ever, due to its comfort, cleanliness, privacy and good music.

After finishing our meal and saying goodbyes again to some of the staff we wouldn’t be returning to camp with, we loaded up. Once again, Ash and I rode in the van, which we figured would be the comfortable way to travel back into the humidity of the lower altitudes.

How wrong we were.

How horrifically wrong we were.

At first, things were quite nice. It was cool in the van and we kept ourselves amused by snickering quietly as Marcello’s secretary defaced Butch with makeup as he snoozed in the front seat. (That’s so wrong, I know, but it was funny.) It was so comfy in there that I eventually went to sleep myself.

I awoke probably 40 minutes later later in a thick sweat. At some point during the journey, Marcello had switched off the air-conditioner and it was never switched back on. Most of the windows on the van were of the variety that can only open a couple of inches and the one nearest me wouldn’t stay open at all unless propped, so while we did get some air we didn’t get as much as the folks back on the bus likely were. That sounds bad enough. It might even sound like I’m complaining. No. I’m not. But I’m about to.

When I next awoke, I discovered the true reason why Marcello always tells people it will take far less time to get places than it actually does. And that reason is because you do indeed arrive at destinations far more quickly when you drive at 90 mph the entire way!

There I was, sleeping away. Then my heat-addled mind awakened me, I groggily unstuck myself from the vinyl seat-back and casually glanced out the window only to find our night-time surroundings hurtling past the van at a tremendous and most unsettling speed. Marcello was laying on the gas peddle with abandon. I couldn’t see the speedometer from my seat, but it had to be edging close to 144 kilometer/hour. There was very little other traffic on the road, but whenever we would come upon a car (rush upon some, I should say) Marcello would just zip around it and on we’d go, careening into the night. I was terrified to my core.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, because I knew Marcello’s reputation from Ashley’s description of her terrifying journey down the side of a mountain when her mission team was leaving Quetzaltenanga, trying to get back to Guatemala City during the civil disturbances of 2003. From what I’d heard of that trip, Marcello’s current driving was actually pretty tame by comparison. And at least we weren’t flying down twisty winding one-lane mountain roads.

No one else in the van seemed too concerned by our speed. In fact, most of them seemed to be trying to sleep through it as best they could. Not a bad idea, I thought. At least if I was asleep and we died in a horrible fiery crash, I might not wake up for it at all. Plus, if we did crash at this speed, death was almost a certainty, for there were no seatbelts to be found in Marcello’s van. (At least, I never found any. In fact, working seatbelts were pretty thin on the ground for much of our stay and by our second week in Central America I’d eschewed them entirely in favor of pure faith.)

Before returning to blissful unconsciousness, I decided to hedge bets against firey death by praying to our Heavenly Father for safe travel for us and for Marcello’s driving skills to be strengthened. This would not be the last time I would have to pray for safe travel in the hands of Marcello and his van. I’m sure I was not alone in my prayers, either and I know I wasn’t the only one audibly thanking God when we finally did arrive safely back at camp.

I hit the showers as soon as I could and by the time I got out the bus had also arrived. Most of the people on it looked happy and undisturbed by their journey. They spoke of seeing lava shooting out of the top of an active volcano on their way back. I’d slept through that part, so I didn’t get to see it. At least I was alive, though.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Thursday, March 24, 2005

Boy, I did NOT want to get up Thursday morning. The three days of clinics had finally caught up to me and despite getting a good 8 hours of sleep I was quite unwilling to stir at 6 a.m. I made it til 6:15 before the chorus of unanswered travel alarms that get louder and more irritating the longer they go unanswered just wouldn’t let me slumber any more. (Did everyone get together and agree to buy the same maddening travel alarm?)

Not even coffee at breakfast had much effect at waking me up. While at breakfast, I also discovered that the shirt I had worn—the allegedly fresh clean, though still slightly damp shirt from my wash the night before—was not in fact fresh nor was it clean. It was down right sour-smelling. Turns out only the first t-shirt I washed really got clean, while the other shirts, shorts, socks and undies I’d washed afterwards were contaminated by the stinky water from the clothes before them and had not been rinsed properly. I couldn’t face being stanky all day, so I had to run change shirts before we left.

We drove back to Pasaco for the week’s final day of clinic. There was already a huge crowd gathered outside the Palacio and we could barely get through the doors. Evidently, the mayor of the neighboring town had been true to his word that he was sending everyone he could.

I’m sorry to say that my mood didn’t really improve once we were in the pharmacy and the clinic got underway. I wasn’t so much cranky as just very lethargic. After a bit, I realized that I was probably dehydrated. I usually slept with a bottle of water at my side in case I needed a drink during the night. Unfortunately, at some point the previous night, I’d rolled over and knocked it over the side of my bunk and possibly down onto Andrew’s head. I’d not had much to drink since, save for the coffee at breakfast, which doesn’t count because it’s a diuretic. After that discovery, I start chugging water and within 10 minutes I felt back up to speed.

Instead of David or Whitney as our pharmacy assistants, we had Jenna. She’s from New Jersey and is enrolled at Word of Life’s New York Bible Institute for a year-long program designed to help prepare her for the mission field. About the only thing I knew about Jenna was from her testimony at our evening meeting the night before and from Dr. Allen, who told me that she speaks fluent Hebrew. We were all terribly impressed that a young lady like herself would have gone through the amount of work necessary to learn Hebrew, a phenomenally hard language to master. Then we found out that while she had done all the work to learn it, she had done so over the course of her entire life, as one of her parents is Jewish and Jenna had spent a lot of time at Hebrew School. She was still a smart cookie and a quick study in the pharmacy. We were glad to have her along.

For most of the week’s clinics, Jenna had been helping the missionary staff with witnessing. I think there may have been some trade-off on Thursday, though, because one our team members from West Virginia, Larnie, went to help with the missions. One of the gospel sharing techniques was to use a beaded bracelet that worked to tell of Jesus’s sacrifice exactly the way the wordless book does. By the end of the day Larnie had heard the gospel explained this way in Spanish so much that she’d memorized it and was able to start reciting it from memory to the people she witnessed to. And with great results.

As for the pharmacy, we were far busier than on any other day that week. There was very little down time at all throughout the day and the three of us and Esdras were kept hopping. Unfortunately, Esdras had caught a cold somewhere along the way, no doubt from germs on the patient histories he’s been handling for three days now. The rest of us have been hand-sanitizing like fiends, (particularly after coming out of the mayor’s bano), but I don’t think Esdras had very much. The cold was also slowly making his voice go hoarse. I’d been feeling pretty invulnerable to contagious illnesses, because I’d just gotten over a nasty cold a couple of weeks before we left and figured my immune system was pretty strong. I feel bad that we didn’t take more precautions with Esdras and the other vital support staff.

In the morning, we got a prescription from Dr. Lally that called for a medication to be cut into a dosage of 1/8 of a pill. We could see from the patient’s history that it was for a baby of only a few months age. It would be important to give such a tiny dose, but I didn’t think we were capable of cutting pills that small. Mary Ann’s pocket knife was no longer very sharp and had been smashing pills up as we just tried to cut them in half. And our pill cutter was no good either, since it only worked on round pills and these were long pills.

I’m sorry to say that my reaction to this problem was to become intensely frustrated. I was mad that yet another doc was asking us to do something that was beyond our means, expecting us to react like real pharmacists would. Mary Ann suggested I go ask Dr. Lally what we should do, since we weren’t able to fill the prescription as written. Dr. Lally said that she couldn’t give the child any more than 1/8 of a pill. She asked me what I thought we could do about it.

Let me make sure you read this correctly: The doctor was asking me my opinion as to a medical matter. I, of course, had no idea, but the fact that she was asking me, in all seriousness and as though she believed I did have a clue, just floored me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, it made me want to be a better fake-Shemp-pharmacist.

I admitted to Dr. Lally that I was stumped. The only solution she saw other than cutting them was to crush them up and make a suspension liquid with them. However, not being even a fake chemist, I had no idea how to do that either. I figured Mary Ann probably could, but it didn’t seem like a very appealing solution. My mind suddenly felt convicted that I hadn’t even attempted to do what had been asked of me before coming up to whine about it. So I told Dr. Lally that I would go and make the attempt to cut the pills into 8ths and if I failed I could always smash up all the bits and find someone to help me make a suspension with them. And the thing was, when I went back to try it, I was entirely successful in my pill-cutting! I just cut the pills in half, then that half in half, then each fourth in half. It was actually quite easy and the knife didn’t smash any of them up at all.

It was just one more sign that I hadn’t quite learned the lesson of what medical mission work is all about. We weren’t all there to do jobs we already knew how to do. Only a few of us were in that position, and even they were called above and beyond their training on occasion. What we were really there for was to do the best job we could at the task assigned us and to seek help when we couldn’t. I had just reacted to the problem as though it was something not in my job description. I forgot that on a trip like this, there are no solid job descriptions.

Ashley and I got to go to lunch together again. She said she was starting to feel tired of hearing the same complaint from nearly every patient, which was, “I have a headache, I feel bad and it hurts when I pee.”

Through her translator, Ashley would ask, “Are you drinking enough water?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How much water do you drink per day?”

“Five glasses.”

“Five big glasses?”

“Oh, no. Five little glasses,” they, to a person, would say, indicating something the size of an orange juice glass. These are people, mind you, who walk nearly everywhere they go, in the hot sun, and often stand all day long, in the hot sun, selling fruit.

“You have to drink more water!”

More water?” they would ask, as if such a thing were impossible.

“Si! Mas Agua! Two liters a day!”

At lunch Ashley told me, “No wonder it hurts when they pee. They’re peeing solid crystals!”

Our lunch was much more in line with what we were looking for on Thursday. Once again we were served tortillas and refried beans, but we also were given fried chicken, fruit and salad. There was also more of the local soft cheese and sour cream, which I smeared on tortillas with beans and a firey green chili sauce, which I hoped would kill off anything unpleasant in the food.

I’m not sure that it did.

That afternoon my stomach began feeling a bit odd and upset. Nothing I could really take offense about at first, but I could tell it was the sort of thing that was slowly building toward a climax and I just hoped that climax would occur some time well after we got back to camp. Coincidentally, the mayor’s bano chose that moment to stop working altogether. The water in the sink refused to run, the toilet wouldn’t flush and in fact seemed to have been clogged with toilet paper! Now you KNOW the locals hadn’t clogged the toilet with paper, so it had to have been one or more Gringos. And even though we all knew better, I imagine someone had simply forgotten the rule about dumping your soiled paper in the little bin by the commode and then been too squeamish to reach in and fish it out. Either that or they noticed that the little bin by the commode hadn’t been changed in a couple of days and was now quite full and quite foul and had no more room for ANY soiled paper. The interior of the toilet bowl itself was a sight I shall spare you all the details of, except to say that horrific is a word that came immediately to mind. Eventually, the attention of someone in power at the Palacia was called to this problem. They came and had a look and seemed pretty horrified themselves. Then they went away (some say fled), declaring the mayor’s restroom to be inoperable.

These were omens that did not bode well for the tempest that continued to rage in my gut for much of the afternoon. I hoped and prayed I could make it.

Alyssa was back on the job, but had begun feeling ill again as well. Ashley told me later that Alyssa had come to her station at one point to ask if there was anything Ash could do to help her. Ashley talked with her about her symptoms and decided to try some more manipulation techniques. The trouble was, everything Ashley did made Alyssa aggressively more ill to the point that the girl turned green and threw up.

Around 3:30, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. The gut-tempest wanted out and not through the front door. I also knew there was no way I was going to use the Mayor’s bano if I could possibly avoid it. The only other option I knew about was the bano across the main hall, in the heart of the dental team’s territory. Only the sign on the door was flipped around to read OCCUPIED. And it stayed occupied for ten grueling minutes. My stomach ached terribly and I finally decided that I would go and knock on the door on the off chance that someone had actually vacated the bano and just forgot to turn the “Occupied” sign back around to “Vacant”. I went across the main hallway and to the bano’s door. I then realized that even if I knocked I would never hear a response because the dental team had chosen to store their air-compressor in that bano and it was currently making loud farty sounds of its own at a very high volume. I knocked anyway and waited. No response but the compressor’s roar. Then, preparing to avert my eyes at the first sign of an occupant, I opened the door. It was blissfully vacant.

Once inside the bano, I saw why there was a need for an Occupied/Vacant sign. This bano also had no handle on the inside of the door other than a piece of vinyl twine. Did no bano in this building have a lock? I wrapped the twine around a nail and hoped it would hold should someone attempt what I just had. I then proceeded to sit down to, er… “release the tempest,” as it were. Let me just add that I was eternally thankful that the near deafening compressor was in there, for it was drowning out any unpleasant noises I was making.

After that I felt much better.

Thursday afternoon, I returned to giving out pen-lights to kids. I saw one little boy who didn’t have any toys at all and flashed the light in his direction. He jumped back, as though it were a laser. I blinked the light at him a couple of more times and passed it to him, then showed him how to flash it himself. He dashed away and soon returned with his little sister. The sister was too shy to ask for a light, but I gave one to the brother to give to her and she grinned at me. Soon they had another friend and I gave him a light too. A little while later, the first little boy came over and gestured to me to lean over and whispered something to me in Spanish. I tried to tell him my standard reply in such situations, “Hablo mui piquito Espanol” (I speak very little Spanish). He said it again. This time I heard him say something about “caro.” I gestured for him to say it to Esdras, who listened and then told me, “He wants to know if you have a little car.”

Did I have a car? Oh, boy did I ever. I had only brought my own personal collection of Hotwheels cars, which amounted to four or five toy cars that I’d had since me and my friends used to use them to play the Car Wars card game like big nerds back in college. I’d brought them for just this purpose. I told the little boy “Un momento,” then dashed into the pharmacy for my backpack. Unfortunately, I’d neglected to transfer the cars from the pocket of my carry on bag into the backpack, so I didn’t have any with me after all. Surely someone in one of the other clinics had a toy car somewhere. I gestured for the boy to wait there again, then zipped from clinic station to clinic station looking for toy cars. I found toys of every shape except that of a car. ARGH! I hated to do it, but I had to return to the little boy and say, “Lo siento. No caro.” I expected the little boy to be crushed by the news, but he just grinned and went back to his friends. I would have loved to have given him one of my cars. Unfortunately, I would be giving no children cars on this journey because of an inconvenient rip in one of the vinyl side pockets of my carryon duffle bag. I had tried to duct-tape it shut before we left the United States, but the tape had not held. All of my cars had evidently been in that pocket and had fallen out during their journey from America. I imagined that at that moment, the child of a baggage handler somewhere was probably playing with the really wicked-sweet toy car daddy found on the tarmac. (And his infant brother was probably drinking our Enfamil!) That was fine. As long as someone’s kid was enjoying them, it was okay by me.

That afternoon, not long after my adventures in the bano, we were paid a visit by a former patient from the day before. I had gone to ask Dr. Allen a question in his clinic room that he shared with Ashley and Andrew. I hadn’t yet asked my question when one of our translators, Astrid, came in accompanied by a local woman who was carrying a plate of tamales. The tamales looked exactly like tamales should: little warm packages of dough and meat and spices wrapped in honest to God corn husks. And she’d then put each corn husk-tamale in a sandwich baggie; a whole plate of them, piled high, piping hot and smelling wonderful.

Astrid got everyone’s attention and then said, “This is one of our patients from yesterday. She was so happy that we helped her that she baked this plate of tamales to say thank you to us.”

We all stood there, staring at the tamales that we really wanted to, but didn’t dare, eat. They had almost certainly been prepared with local water and were possibly microbe ridden. I was especially wary, being as how I’d already had one potential run in with microbial results less than an hour earlier. No one moved. The lady continued to stand there, holding her plate of hot tamales and smiling at us. She didn’t speak a word of English. Astrid continued to smile widely at us, through slightly clenched teeth, and reiterated, “She brought them for us to have to say thank you for helping her.” Her smile then became tighter and teeth more clenched and she began nodding at us as she spoke. “So we should ALL. TAKE. ONE. Since she spent time making them for us.”

It then occurred to us how extremely rude it would be not to take one and that we didn’t necessarily have to eat them even if we took them.

“Gracias! Gracias!” we all said, lining up for a tamale.

Ashley ate hers right away. I was far more hesitant, considering my stomach, but I held onto it.

Despite the fact that we saw far more patients than the day before, we actually finished up clinic earlier than expected. Our last patient was out by 6:15 or so and then we were able to pack up the pharmacy. This was a little frustrating, because my brain had, as usual, stopped working so well a couple of hours before and so I couldn’t really focus on telling all the people that kept asking how they could help what to do. This didn’t make them stop asking me, though, so I began getting grumpier and grumpier until I just shoved a bag at them and told them to start stuffing it with supplies. To their credit, they were all very patient with me and didn’t seem to take offense at my less than polite behavior. None of them were any less tired than I was. Before we’d gotten everything packed up, the chief of police returned to reclaim his office. He surveyed the rearranged furniture and occasional stray pills, as we did our best to clean up our trash and haul away our things.

All that we needed to do now was wait for the dental team to finish up. Since they had long since run out of local patients, they had offered to do dental checkups for any of the Guatemalan staff who wanted one.

Outside, I sat with Esdras on the Palacio’s sidewalk. I’d been dreading this moment for a while now. See, it’s a mission tradition to bring thank-you gifts to give to your translators. However, I had not brought anything with me that I thought was particularly suitable. Oh, sure, I’d brought a WV University t-shirt and had even considered giving away my watch. However, I’d managed to get Deet bug-repellent on the watch, which had eaten away the its lettering and permanently scoured the surface of its face. (It was a pretty cheap watch to begin with, too.) And the WV t-shirt was about three sizes too big for Esdras’s slight build. I just felt awful that I didn’t have anything approaching adequate to say how thankful I was at having had him there to translate for us. He’d been superb at the job and deserved more than a crappy watch or a tent of a t-shirt. In the end, I decided that I would get his addresss and send him something nicer. I still wanted to give him something then, though. I decided I would instead give Esdras my own stainless steel penlight. I explained that it too was inadequate to express my thanks, but it had served me well while I’d owned it and would hopefully serve him well too.

Esdras and some of the other translators soon ran off to play basketball. They invited me, but after my gut-wrenching afternoon I didn’t know if I could stand it.

After learning that Ashley had eaten her tamale from earlier to no ill effects, I opened mine and ate it. It was cold, but it was very very good. We then stood there talking to some of the other mission team as we watched the full moon rise above the square. We had just been in a long discussion of how it’s a proven phenomenon that strange cases always arrive in Emergency Rooms during a full moon, when I happened to glance over and saw that there was a man standing close to Mary Ann and Dr. Allen who was the creepiest dude I’ve seen in a long time. He was wearing what appeared to be dress-pants and a white button up shirt, but his face screamed Asylum Escapee. He looked menacing and angry and curious all at the same time and just stood there staring at us as we continued to chat. I was a little afraid he might go for Mary Ann’s neck and was wondering what I would do if he did. He didn’t. Instead, he wandered off toward the Palacia where Dr. Lally was giving out candy. Soon after, he wandered INTO the Palacia itself. Evidently this creepy guy either had an in with the police or he was just too crazy to care.

The Dental Team was still hard at work when Marcello told the rest of us to load up and head out cause he was taking us back to camp. On the way, he announced that the camp had purchased a new transformer to accompany the new water pump and it had been installed. This meant that that night we could have all the A/C we wanted. We were nearly moved to tears at this news. Even better was when we reached camp and I walked into our cabin to find that someone had already turned both air-conditioners on full blast and the whole building was little chunk of sub-arctic heaven. Whenever anyone walked through the door, their immediate reaction was to stop in their tracks, grin and say, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

We were back a good hour before supper was to be served so I figured it would be a fine time to revisit my laundry needs. Since I’d only done a small fraction of my laundry the night before, and poorly, I figured it was time I did it up right.

I went down to the kitchen and borrowed a bucket, then went back to the cabin and dumped all my filthy clothes into it. My Woolite was still lying atop my bed in its former water-bottle home, so I grabbed it and the bucket, then headed for the bano. In one of our shower stalls, I poured water into the bucket, then added a little Woolite. Ashley had told me to use only a little Woolite when washing as a little of it was supposed to go a long way. However, this Woolite wasn’t producing many suds. I added the rest of the bottle and it still wasn’t making any suds at all. Stupid dud Woolite. I figured, though, that I probably just had too many clothes in the bucket or something.

So I’m washing and washing and no suds are happening and therefore, in my mind, my clothes are getting no cleaner. I finally went and got my bar of soap and chunked it into the bucket too. That got me a few suds. I sloshed and washed the rest of the clothes and then rinsed them out under the shower nozzle. I then took them outside and hung them on the warm concrete steps to dry during the night. I was feeling pretty good about the whole process and was safe in the knowledge that my laundry was now all done. That’s when I went back to the cabin and found that my REAL water-bottle full of Woolite was still resting atop my bed. That’s right, I’d grabbed the wrong water bottle and had actually washed my clothes using only WATER instead of Woolite.

At camp that night, we ate very well. We’d had a full four days of clinics and we were now finished with it and had two days of more leisurely activity ahead of us. We were ready to relax–or as our fearless leader Rick Brooks put it, “unlax.” Our food was authentic local cuisine as prepared by the fantastic kitchen staff. It was laid out buffet style and we all got in line quick.

Ashley and I sat down to consume our grub. Emilio and two other members of the local missionary staff joined us. No one talked much, but this was mostly due to the fact that we were too busy stuffing our faces and not so much that we didn’t speak the same language. Through a complex series of sign-language moves, Emilio indicated to me that the food we were eating that night was the real deal, unlike what we thought had been good food back at the cocina in Pasaco. I was hard pressed to argue. Though Emilio didn’t speak much English, I’m pretty sure he understood a lot more of it than I’d given him credit for earlier. As we wound up our meal, he listened to Ashley as she retold to some of our tablemates her earlier complaints about her patients not drinking enough water he and nodded and laughed along with us. The other two guys at the table spoke even less English than Emilio, but they seemed to want to share in the fun too. At one point, I think they heard us speaking about the fact that none of us had thought to grab any water on our way from the buffet line and now it was all gone from the beverages table. Our two tablemates got up and went to the camp’s cooler and returned with water bottles for all of us. Once again, I’d misjudged the skills of the locals. We thanked them with a round of graciases (probably the most used Spanish word of the week). While none of us spoke very much of the other’s language, it was a good time to just hang out together.

Rick and Butch and Marcello took the floor and congratulated us on the clinics we’d accomplished and began telling us what they had planned for us for the next two days. On Friday we would be sleeping in and breakfast would not be served until 9:30a. This received a cheer from all sides. Then, many of our translators and missionary staff would be leaving for Guatemala City to spend Good Friday with their families for Holy Week celebrations. This received sounds of disappointment from the Gringos. We didn’t want them to leave. However, it was explained that Holy Week celebrations were similar in nature to Thanksgiving for us, and it was a time for families to gather and celebrate together. The fact that so many of our team would be leaving made me feel even more guilty that I had not sat with Esdras for dinner that evening. This would be one of the last times we’d get to see each other, barring future mission trips. I think a lot of the American side of the team came to a similar realization at that point and the mood of the group darkened a little.

Marcello continued with our itinerary, saying that after breakfast we would drive to Antigua, where we would see some of the elaborate and internationally reknowned Holy Week festivities. A trip to Antigua had been discussed earlier in the week, but it had been felt at the time that the city would be too busy to be able to get very close to the heart of it, so it might not be ideal. Now it seemed thoughts had changed on the matter. I think the trip itself was good enws for everyone, just not as good news as it would have been if everyone were going.

It seemed like things were turning into a downer of an evening, so I decided to try and liven things up. We’d reached a portion of the evening when many of the team-members were speaking to the group about their experiences during the week, so I signaled Marcello and Butch that I had one to share too. Soon they brought me up and, with Marcello translating, I told the tale of my misadventures with the Woolite. It was not something I’d planned or rehearsed, but I’m a good speaker and know the basics for timing such a story. It was a much more condensed version than my account here, because I could only tell little bits of it before those bits had to be translated. However, it was kind of fun to get to the punchline of the story, (“And there… on my bed… was my real water bottle full of Woolite…”) and get two sets of laughs, once when the Americans heard my version and again when the locals heard Marcello’s translation.

After this, Marcello explained to us that the Guatemalan team wished to give us a each a small gift to remember our time there and thank us for the work we had done. They brought out hand-carved wooden clocks with the word “Guatemala” carved into on them.

We heard a number of the Guatemalan staff speak that night, telling us how much the mission had meant to them and how happy they were to have been a part of it. It made me proud all over again that we were able to join with the national team and accomplish something bigger than ourselves.

After the meeting had adjourned, one of the two mission-staffers who had brought us the water earlier came up and handed me some money. It was a bill worth twenty cordobas, which is the currency in Nicaragua. He began speaking to me in Spanish, but had gone far beyond my limited translation abilities so I asked Astrid to come over and translate. She said his name was Fernando and he was from Nicaragua. He wanted to give me the money as a souvenir from his country. I thanked him and accepted it. Only after we’d spoken a bit more and said good night did it occur to me that I could have given him a souvenir bill in return. Granted, I didn’t think that 20 cordobas came anywhere close to equaling 20 dollars, but perhaps I had something equivalent. I tracked down Marcello, who was speaking to Rick, and explained that a staffer had given me 20 cordobas as a souvenir and asked them how much the bill was worth. I should have phrased my question better, I think, because they seemed to take what I’d asked as though I wanted to know how much it was worth so I could go trade it in for that amount of dollars. They, in turn, had to “break the news to me” that the bill was probably only worth 20 cents and that I wasn’t getting rich off that.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said, a bit peeved that I’d not been clear. “I don’t care how much it’s worth. I was just asking so I could trade an equivalent amount of dollars back as a souvenir.”

They gave me the perplexed look again and shrugged, so I figured it was just best to walk away. I didn’t have any small bills and I didn’t think handing Fernando a quarter was very nice.

There were plenty of activities going on that night: Butch had set up his laptop’s DVD player to show movies and there was talk of a Gringo Vs. Locals (locos) basketball game. I didn’t want to stay up for any of it, though. I wanted to head back up, get a shower and crawl into my semi-dusty bunk for some shut-eye in our hopefully freezing cabin. And this I did.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 4 STATS
Patients Seen: 498
Prescriptions Filled: 451
Salvations/Rededications: 194

TOTALS FOR THE WEEK
Patients Seen: 1983
Prescriptions Filled: 1752
Salvations/Rededications: 631

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Clinic Day 3

I decided to go out and scout around the camp a little Wednesday moring to take some more pictures. Even though I had been at the camp for over two days, I had not really had a good look at the place. This time I walked down the in-progress stone drive/walk way all the way to the lake where I got some gorgeous shots of the sunrise over the still surface of the water. A few minutes later, the net fisherman returned, far across the lake, and began casting their morning nets. There were mango trees all along the edge of the lake. As I walked near to one, a mango fell from high in the tree and hit the ground with a tremendous smack that sounded like it would have hurt had anyone been on the receiving end. I’m continually amazed at this country and the fruit trees that are everywhere.

Our new clinic site was in the town of Pasaco, which Marcello told us was about five minutes from camp. The last time we’d heard any destination was 5 minutes from camp, it turned out to be 20 minutes from camp. This time it was only ten minutes, though, so we thought Marcello’s Gringo-Time guestimation was improving.

Pasaco was a tiny but very pretty and picturesque town. It didn’t feel as urban as Chiquimuilla did and there was not as much traffic. We were thankful for this, as there felt like barely enough room for our busses. I was again amazed at Oswald’s ability to maneuver ours through such tiny streets. The more we rode with him the more we loved him. Oswald seemed like a pretty cool cat too and never failed to say “Ereek” whenever I boarded his bus. There was some debate around this point in the journey as to whether his name was Oswald or Oswalt. Finally, Ashley asked him point blank and he said that it’s pronounced Oswald, “like the name of the man who killed President Kennedy.” Ah. This, however, would not be the last mystery we would encounter with Oswald’s name.

The clinic site was in the Palacio (city hall), located on what looked to be Pasaco’s town-square. There was a decorative tower in the middle of the square, surrounded by a grassy fenced park where roosters strutted. Along the edges of the square were cocinas (restaurants) and shops and a beautiful white church. There was also a long line of wrecked vehicles. (Looking back on the photos, it might have been fun to make jokes about them having been the first several cars owned by Marcello, but at the time I was still two days away from learning the true terror that is Marcello’s driving.)

The Palacio itself was the seat of Pasaco’s government not to mention the police station for the area. The building was under quite a bit of construction at the time, as they were trying to add a second floor onto the existing first floor. Therefore, there was a lot of exposed rebar and concrete block work to be seen. Our team was pretty much given the run of the entire building and Marcello had already worked out where most of the clinic stations would be located within it.

Our new pharmacy was to be located inside the police chief’s personal office, which was the first office in a corridor that split off about mid-way down the Palacia’s main hallway. Further down our side corridor was the office of the mayor and another city-governmental office. Then, directly across the main hallway from our corridor was another corridor that lead to two large multi-person offices where the dental team would set up. The Palacio’s main hallway lead further into the building itself, where it opened on a very large area, like a garage or recreational area, painted green. This was where the pre-waiting room and mission area would be set up. From the large green area there were other rooms off to the left where Dr. Allen, Ashley and Andrew would have their clinic area and a set of somewhat scary looking but ultimately sturdy concrete steps that lead to the still under construction second story where the pediatrics ward would be housed.

Our pharmacy office was very neat and tidy and was a far bigger space than the cage we’d been in before. It also came with three desks, offering plenty of space for counting pills and not getting in each other’s way too much. It didn’t, however, have much in the way of usable shelving. Fortunately, we’d planned ahead.

That morning during breakfast, Dr. Allen and Ashley had hit upon the notion that since we didn’t know what kind of shelving we could expect, we should bring our own in the form of two of the wooden benches that were set up on either side of our meal-tables. The benches were probably twelve feet in length and, if stacked, would give us two twelve foot long shelves with space beneath. We’d hauled them over in Oswald’s bus and found that they worked perfectly when stacked atop two of the office’s desks. Brilliant! We ran to find all of our alphabetically sorted bags and began loading up the shelves and desks with meds. Clinic setup was pretty simple after that.

We decided that we would not allow patients into the office itself, but that we would bring their finished prescriptions out to them. To this effect, we set up a fourth small desk in the corridor outside where it backed up against the closed half of the gated doorway that lead into the main hall and we strung a rope across the open other side. Our plan was to let the patients line up along the hallway and we could take their prescriptions. Esdras would mostly be stationed at the desk in the hall to translate for us.

The weather was still very hot and the building was pretty much an open windows affair like the last one. However, we had the added advantage of having four, count `em 4, fans in the Pharmacy Office. FOUR! Frankly, we were embarrassed to have so many because we really only needed one, maybe two, for the office itself and one for Esdras in the hallway. So throughout the day, we kept trying to give away our extra fans, but we got no takers because there were so very few power outlets in the building that there was often no place to plug them. We’d already exhausted our outlets with power-strips and had extension cords running out the windows to bring power to other areas of the complex. And even then, we kept running over the cords with the office chairs and unplugging them, which must have driven Esdras crazy in the hallway to have his fan keep cutting out. He never said a word, though, and I found myself keeping watch over the cords and fans to make sure they were all running smoothly and he could get air.

I think the drugs we dispensed the most throughout the two weeks of mission clinics were vitamins. We brought an enormous supply of them too, being as we knew we would need a lot and so that’s one of the drugs we primarily asked for donations for. It’s a good thing we had them too.

We had a huge supply of children’s chewable vitamins, most arriving in standard drug-store sized bottles, but others having been donated by our local pharmacist that came in giant Sam’s Club style pill bottles. We also had a ready supply of adult vitamins and prenatal vitamins. The prenatals came as sampler packets from the drug companies, usually little round blister cards of 5 pills each. Before leaving for the trip, our local team members had held a packing party to get everyone’s supplies packed and weighed and we had used that time to divide up the prenatals and put six of these 5 pill cards into sandwich baggies for a month’s dose. These were kept in a giant black suitcase that was nearly bursting with them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to dispense many of them during the first week because we had only a few pregnant women come through the clinic. However, the children’s and adult vitamins went out with nearly every prescription.

The local people are huge believers in the power of vitamins. Our doctors found that the patients thought that just about any ailment they might have could be cleared up with a strong application of vitamins. So when they asked for vitamins, they got vitamins, in addition to the other more effective medicines they really needed. As Dr. Allen explained to us, medicine is often more art than science, and if a patient believes something is going to help them they will often get better despite how much that drug may be inappropriate to treat their condition. So Dr. Allen tended to prescribe both the effective drugs and the ineffective ones, figuring one or the other would do the trick.

The only major trouble with this plan is that kids LOVE the taste of vitamins, and you couldn’t give the vitamins directly to the kids or they would be dashing away popping them like candy. So we had to give them to the parents and explain to them that the kids were to take no more than “Uno Por Dia.” Often, the parents would nod and then hand the baggie right to the kids, who would dash away and likely consume them all. (I didn’t actually witness any child doing this, but Ashley did on her previous trip.)

Now, it’s not such a bad thing for a kid to eat a month’s supply of run of the mill chewable vitamins. It’s not ideal, but they’ll process them okay. However, some children were iron deficient and required a children’s vitamin with iron. Most over the counter Flintstones chewables don’t come equipped with Iron, so we brought a different brand that did and stored them in a totally separate location and bottle from the regular children’s vitamins and had not pre-dosed them because we did NOT want any confusion. A kid takes too much Iron at once and bad things can happen. So we had Esdras stress and explain the importance of keeping the vitamins with Iron away from the children except for one per day and told the parents that it would make their kids sick if they ate any more than that. Then we prayed they had listened.

Unfortunately, as the prescriptions started coming in on Wednesday, we discovered that all but our prenatal vitamins were missing. Not that they’d been taken, or anything. They simply hadn’t been among the meds in the bags we had located and were therefore still in one that we hadn’t. I left the pharmacy and scouted around all the other clinic areas to find it. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure I had been the guy to pack them and didn’t remember what their bag looked like.

As I was starting my search, I passed by the mission area, which was situated on the other side of a wall in the Palacio’s garage. It had close to 15 pairs of plastic chairs set up where members of the mission team sat. Those people from the waiting area who wanted to hear more about the gospel than just the message Pastor Douglas preached and the testimony given earlier by Andrew, could go and speak one on one with one of the missionaries. I’d not seen the missionary area in Chiquimuilla, except in photographs, but this one was amazing. The missionaries who were there talking to the patients all beamed with joy as they shared the gospel message. And while I expected to find more patients who were unwilling to listen or who might be there simply for the medical treatment and going through the motions, I didn’t see that at all. The response I could see on their faces was genuine and touching.

After asking around about vitamins to little effect, I finally went into the dental area where I eventually found them. Turns out the bag had been lumped in with the dental team’s things and then stored under a table to get it out of the way.

I made a few mistakes early in the day in the pharmacy and was unhappy about it. Nothing major, but definitely a miscalculation on my part. My big actual screw up of the day came later. We’d received what I thought was a standard prescription for a Amoxyl. I marked a medicine cup appropriately and asked Esdras to give them the Amoxyl speech, for the standard 250 mg 1 teaspoon dose. Unfortunately, after the patient had been instructed and had left the clinic, Mary Ann discovered that the prescription had actually called for a half teaspoon dose. This is one of the real troubles with not being a real pharmacist and trying to play one—when most drugs are pre-dosed, you have to pay strict attention when the docs sta

rt calling for different dosages. You also have to pay attention to the age of the child, as reported on the patient history, which might indicate to you to look for a smaller dose. Naturally, I didn’t take this screw up on my part very well. I was, in fact, mad about it, both at

myself for having been lax in my observations and at Dr. Allen for not marking things clearer so that non-pharmacists such as myself had a better chance at catching such changes. In reality, he’d marked it perfectly clearly, but a pharmacy as busy as ours tends to fall into a fast-food assembly line mentality when so many of the same things are ordered. Following that metaphor, once in a while, you’ll get an order for a burger with no onions and you have to be ready for it. It was a good lesson to learn and, fortunately for the child in question, not one that would result in anything more serious than a little diarrhea. This was not the first nor the last time that things would get screwed up due to my efforts.

One thing I might have had good reason to be cranky about was the bano situation. In the Palacia, there were a limited number of banos available. Two of them were side by side at the far end of the dental wing corridor. However, one of the was being used for sterilization of instruments while the other had a PRIVATE MISSION TEAM RESTROOM sign on the door as well as an OCCUPIED/EMPTY sign. The only other bano that I knew about was in the mayor’s office, which was further down the corridor that the pharmacy was located on. The mayor had made himself scarce for the duration of the clinics, but we’d been told we could use his bano.

As far as Central American bano’s go, his was not atypical, but it was also not ideal. For one thing, the door didn’t have a handle on the inside and would stick tight in its frame when closed. Once inside, therefore, you had no guarantee of getting out until someone heard your screams for help. For another, while the toilet did “work” and the sink did “work”, there was enough water (dear, Lord, I prayed it was water) on the floor to suggest something was leaking somewhere. And while there was also soap at the sink, the hand-drying towel was filthy enough that you didn’t really want to touch it, let alone dry anything on it. Being as how this was one of the only banos available, though, it was used by just about everyone at some point in the day.

We didn’t have David to assist us in the pharmacy that morning, but we did have help from Whitney, the 18-year-old daughter of one of the mid-wives on the WV portion of the team. If she hadn’t done mission pharmacy work before, she sure took to it pretty quickly.

My Spanish skills, while not near conversational, were starting to get better and I was starting to recall more of what I’d learned in college. Edsras gave me some more pointers and graciously corrected me when I messed up. So, instead of saying “Uno por dia” or “Dos por dias” to patients, I had graduated to “Dos diarias.” I felt like I sounded like I knew what I was saying, but I must have been speaking with a foreign accent because many patients gave me a confused look when I tried Spanish on them.

I spoke with Esdras some more about his future plans. He’d mentioned an interest in computers the day before and how one day he might like to come to the states to go to college to do more with them. I ask him how that process might work. He said that mostly it’s very difficult for Guatemalans to get visas to study in America. And when it is possible, there is a lot of bureaucratic red tape to wade through. He asked what school might be good to attend for computer training. I told him that Mississippi State University, my alma mater, had a decent computer science department. Plus Mississippi is hot and humid too, so if he was able to go there it would be a lot like living at home.

We had a sudden rush around lunch-time and even though Whitney and I had been told to go on the first lunch shift, I didn’t feel like I could leave Mary Ann in the lurch like that. Then to our rescue came David H., our erstwhile 16-year old pharmacy vet from yesterday. He agreed to stay and help Mary Ann so we could go eat.

Lunch was at a little cocina across the square. There were tables out front, but we’d been told to go into the cocina itself, which meant walking through the kitchen of the cocina (or, the kitchen of the kitchen) and into the covered patio/cooking area in back. The smells were exactly the kind of smells you want to have coming out of a Central American cocina—all refried beans and meat and tortillas and guacamole. I caught sight of some of that sort of fare too and was looking forward to it.

On the patio in back there were more tables and the familiar faces of the mission staff, including Ashley. This would be our first time to eat lunch together since Sunday. I sat down and we soon began a table-wide discussion of all the fabulous food we could see on other people’s tables and how we were looking forward to having some. We also watched one of the ladies who worked there as she prepared food by an enormous oven near the far wall. She was grinding cornmeal dough between two rocks, then slapping patties of it on the large concave oven surface to bake into tortillas. Aw, man, did we want some of that action!

Then our waitress came out and brought us each a ham & cheese sandwich topped with mystery sauce on white bread, some french fries and a tray of lettuce, tomatoes and fruit. We all looked down at our plates, then over to the food on the plates of the local customers and collectively thought, “We don’t want this. We want some of what they have.”

Not that we were ungrateful Gringos, or anything, because the ham sandwiches and fries were good. We just hoped that by coming to Central America we would be able to sample more of the local faire. The ladies in the kitchen back at the camp were great cooks and had given us kind of a sampling of local dishes, which were all very very good. However, we could never be certain that they weren’t just feeding us what they thought Gringos wanted to eat. We wanted real uncensored Central American food. Sure, we understood that eating what the locals ate might kill us, or make us at least wish we were dead, but frankly if it meant I got to eat the tortillas and beans I could see, I figured it might be worth it.

We must have looked pitiful as we slowly gnawed on our ham & cheese sandwiches, stealing coveting glances at the food around us. And someone must have eventually taken pity on us, because after ten minutes or so our waitress brought out a basket of piping hot tortillas, a plate of refried beans, some sour cream and soft local cheese. We all dove in without pausing for consideration and greedily feasted on what were probably the best beans and tortillas I’ve ever eaten. (Later, Emilio would tell me that what we had eaten really wasn’t very good, as such things go, and that there was far better out there. Could’ve fooled me, though.)

I relieved Mary Ann and David to go to lunch. And since Dr. Allen and some other doctors went with them, things naturally slowed down for us in the pharmacy, leaving me and Esdras to hang out waiting for the occasional prescription.

Another translator came up after a while bearing a Guatemala City newspaper. I thought he was bringing it in to show the latest football scores to Esdras, but he’d actually brought it for me. He turned it to the international news section and pointed out the main story which was about the school shooting in Red Lake, Minnesota. Esdras translated much of the story for me, explaining that the kid’s father had shot himself four years earlier and his mother was in a mental institution. I was afraid this sort of thing might happen. Not a school shooting, per se, but a big news story back home that I might or might not hear about until I get back, if even then. It reminds me of the three week theatre camp I used to attend in high school and was staff at through college. Every year, something would happen in the world or major world figures or celebrities would die and I would never know about it until seeing them in a year-end retrospective because I’d been in a three week news vacuum.

As sad as that news was, I was happy that our translators thought to let us know about a situation back home that they thought we would need to know about. Esdras wanted to know how a kid that young could get hold of the kind of weapons he did. Not knowing any details of the case, I could only guess that they were his father’s old guns. But I pointed out that with a dad that killed himself and a mom in a mental institution, this poor kid had a lot of bad stuff going against him. I’m certainly not making excuses for what he did, because that was horrible and nothing could justify it. I’m just saying, with family life like that it’s hard not to loose a few screws yourself.

While I had the newspaper out, I turned it to the comic-strip page. In addition to local and regional cartoons I wasn’t famliar with, there were quite a few of the usual American comic strips, in Spanish. Esdras translated Garfield for me, but it didn’t make sense to me.

Must be funny in Spanish.

Around 3:30, or so, Marcello came into the pharmacy and told us that the chief of police wanted some medication. The meds the chief wanted didn’t amount to anything huge. I think the man basically had frequent headaches and needed a bottle of Ibuprofen or something. It wasn’t as though he wanted to take a stock bottle, or anything. However, Mary Ann wasn’t dispensing pill one without a prescription and told Marcello that the chief would need to see a doctor like everyone else.

Now, I really don’t know anything about Central American law enforcement other than what I’ve seen in movies or read about in books. However, what I’d seen and read lead me to believe that denying the chief of police a handful of pills was not a good idea. Again, I could be wrong, but my impression was that Central American law enforcement works a bit differently than in the states and that its officers, particularly the leaders, are used to getting freebies and “tips” and having people do what they say. (Actually, that’s not really that different than how it sometimes works in the states, but it’s not how it’s supposed to work in the states.)

Part of me would love to have been there to see the chief’s face when Marcello explained that not only had we taken over his police station and kicked him out of his own office for two days, but we weren’t giving him any medicine either. Had to be a sight. I wasn’t really worried that the chief would do anything to us or kick the whole team out of the Palacia—after all we were there with the mayor’s blessing. It did still seem of questionable wisdom to turn him down like that, though.

I think Marcello realized pretty quickly he wasn’t getting through Mary Ann. But instead of having the chief stand in line like the rest of the patients, Marcello did an end-run around the issue and just went straight to Dr. Allen with the request. Dr. Allen wrote up a prescription and brought it to us himself and the chief got his baggie of pills.
The chief wasn’t the only person who was getting sick, though. Racine dental student Alyssa, always a bright and sunny young lady, was feeling mighty low too. It was probably a combination of the heat and maybe dehydration, but she got so sick she nearly passed out and Marcello had to send her back to camp to lie down.

At 4:30, right on time, my brain kicked out once again, but I didn’t feel nearly as worn out as at our other two clinics. Maybe this was because we had a plethora of fans on hand to keep us cool, but I just didn’t feel so bad. Things kind of slowed down a bit by then and I was able to go and sit with Esdras and some of the other translators and missionaries who had finished up their tasks for the day and had come to hang out. One of them called me “Doc” at one point and I had to correct him, “No es doctoro.” The last thing I wanted was to be mistaken for a doctor or to seem like I was trying to pretend I was a doctor in anyone’s eyes.

One of the translators asked me what sports I liked. I had to admit that I don’t follow sports at all, except for the Super Bowl, which I usually watch if only for the commercials. I told him that I did play Soccer when I was a kid, but nothing since. He seemed to like this, since soccer (football) is huge in Guatemala and, in fact, the Guatemalan national team was about to play in a major championship two days from then. The translator then asked me what I thought of a particular well-known player, who he named. Of course, I’d never heard of the player. I think the translator was quietly appalled that such a sports-ignorant creature as myself could be walking the earth, but he grinned and rolled with it well-enough.

We wrapped things up around 6:30 for our first day in Pasaco and headed back to camp. We wouldn’t need any more pills counted, but we had run low on a few key items. Our supply of Ranatidine (Zantac) was near its end, as was our supply of cough syrup.

Back at camp, during our evening meeting, we learned from Doctor Allen that he had left the clinic briefly to deliver the new wheelchair to the 89-year-old patient from Tuesday. When they arrived at her house, they found the lady waiting for them in her best dress. She was overjoyed with her new chair and cried and cried with them and they with her. She just kept thanking them and praising God. These are the kind of experiences I didn’t get to see much of while I was locked away in the pharmacy, but I’m happy to report them here. I really should have done this blog as a team project with one of the docs, (except that the docs don’ t tend to have a lot of time for blogging. Well, except this one, maybe).

We also learned from one of our key missionaries that the mayor of a different nearby town had traveled to Pasaco to see what this clinic thing was all about and to see a doctor himself. He didn’t ask for special treatment, but joined the other patients and was witnessed to by this particular missionary. The missionary knew who the mayor was, and was a bit nervous about sharing the gospel with such a locally powerful man at first. But he soldiered on and gave the message. The mayor listened and was moved by the missionary’s words. And at the end, when the missionary asked if the mayor would like to accept Christ into his life, the mayor responded that yes, he would. Right there, the missionary lead the man through the prayer of admitting that he was a sinner and that he believed Jesus was God’s son sent to die in our place so that we might achieve salvation. The missionary was amazed and pleased at the mayor’s acceptance and the mayor, for his part, just beamed with joy over it. After he’d seen a doctor and been treated, he promised that he would return to his town and tell everyone of the work we were doing and encourage them to come.

Alyssa, our sick dental student, was at the evening meal and meeting too. She said she was feeling better. After the meeting, Ashley helped her out by performing some OMT (Osteopathic Manipulation Techniques) on her. OMT is similar in nature to the manipulative techniques of Chiropractic medicine. However, Chiropractic originated as part of Osteopathy, not the other way around as many people assume. It also offers a wider range of manipulative techniques than Chiropractic, though I’m sure the point might be argued by Chiropractors. (Keep in mind, I’m certainly not knocking Chiropractic medicine, which I think is great stuff. It’s just that Osteopathic medicine has a wider range.) The basic premise of both is that your body is designed to operate best when your bones and joints are in their proper alignment. If they get out of alignment, the works can get gummed up and all sorts of bad things can happen. So Ash’s OMT was essentially trying to make sure Alyssa was firing with all cylinders. She said it helped.

I also had my own after-meeting duties to attend to in the form of washing clothes. Due to the fact that we had limited space in our luggage for clothing, Ashley and I only brought a few changes of clothes. I had probably four t-shirts, three pairs of shorts, a pair of corduroy slacks, a pair of blue-jeans, undies and a few pairs of socks. By Wednesday, much of my gear was quite soiled and stinky with the weeks’ wear. I’d been stashing it in the vacuum-seal bag I’d used to transport it, so it wouldn’t stink up the cabin, but now that bag was getting full. I needed to do laundry and, as there were no official laundry facilities, I would need to use some Woolite and good old fashioned elbow grease. Ash poured some of her Woolite into an empty water bottle for me and I headed up to my cabin. Unfortunately, I was also too tired and had too little space to hang things up to do my entire load of laundry. I woundup doing a few essentials, such as my T-shirts and undies. I washed them out in one of the bano sinks and hung them up around my bed to dry.

Dr. Rich thought this looked like a good idea too, but he preferred to use a bucket for his laundry, so he went out in search of one. When he came back, he said he’d gone down to the kitchen and asked one of the ladies there if he might borrow a bucket.

“She looked at me like I was speaking English,” Dr. Rich said.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 3 STATS
Patients Seen: 420
Prescriptions Filled: 463
Salvations/Rededications: 163

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Clinic Day 2
I awoke at 6a. Three days in on my Central American journey with much hard work and astoundingly I still didn’t ache at all. Not even my feet, which had stood for over 12 hours the day before (in flip-flops, no less!) had so much as a tingle of pain. Granted, I wasn’t going to make the mistake of wearing flip-flops to the clinic again–it was going to be Skechers all the way for me that day–but I was thankful not to be in the agony I expected. I hoped Ashley was in similar good foot health. Back home, I’m the guy who usually rubs her feet after she’s been on them all day. I guessed here she’d have to do it herself, or find someone else. She had mentioned yesterday that her feet and ankles were swollen from all the heat and standing. She’s not the only one in that boat, either. Beyond my own sausage-like calves, once down at the pavilion I saw quite a few other people, women and men both, trying to rub some of the blood out of their legs too.

Breakfast was eggs, black beans, pineapple, mango and cantalope, bacon and toast. It was wonderful! My usual low carb diet doesn’t allow me many black beans and I love black beans. So I took full advantage of my planned two weeks of cheating and chowed down.

At 7:30, after morning devotions, we loaded up our supplies and headed back to the bus station for Clinic Day 2.

Despite our hard work the day before, everyone seemed energetic and ready to go. Everyone but Flo. Flo is a good friend of ours from Ashley’s class in med-school. She’s just a wonderful soul all around, but that morning she looked as though she was about to fall over. Of all of the students on our team, Flo is probably the most experienced with mission work. This is her third two-week Central American mission trip. And just before flying to Guatemala, she had come from a six-week medical rotation/mission in China. It was a difficult rotation for her, during which she was stationed in an orphanage filled with children that had been abandoned by their parents due to birth-defects. Many of the children may yet receive operations to correct conditions such as cleft-pallets and the like, but others are far more difficult cases. We had been receiving e-mail updates from Flo throughout her time in China and knew that she was becoming more and more emotionally wiped out as the weeks passed. Her attitude throughout it, though, was one of faithful and obedient service to God. Unfortunately, Flo had been up for 36 hours on her way from China to Guatemala and her weakened system picked up a virus along the way and it was really keeping her energy down. I’d never before seen Flo with so little spark in her and it hurt to see her as miserable as I imagined she was that morning. I don’t think it mattered much to her, though. She’s a trooper when it comes to the work at hand and serving God.

After morning devotional, we headed back to the clinic site. So energetic was our mood that an impromptu limbo game broke out. Emilio won by quite a margin, but mostly it was just for fun.

Before we could even put away our freshly counted meds from the night before, Marcello brought us a present: our very own fan. Now we could have our own never-ending stream of blissful cooling wind. The fan made a huge difference in the comfort level of the pharmacy cage. We still had to contend with patients blocking the wind, but we angled it in such a way that it could usually blow through the door of the cage and still get to us.

We came out at 8 for our introductions to the crowd of patients. Just as we expected, there were far more patients on day two than day one. There had to be twice as many people there. As daunting as this might seem, though, it was all fine with us. After all, seeing and witnessing to as many patients as we could was why we were there in the first place.

Once the clinic began, we found that things felt better for us than they had on Monday. We didn’t change anything as far as the pharmacy’s layout went, but somehow we seemed to be better set up than the day before. Maybe we just had our sea-legs under us and know where everything was, but the work seemed to go far more smoothly. We also had additional help in the form of David, a 16-year-old kid from back home in WV who is the son of Dr. Lally. I’d actually met David at my local comic shop a year or so back. Turns out he was old hat at mission work, having been on several with his mom, and he’d worked in mission pharmacies before. His presence was a considerable help to us throughout the day.

With things not so stressful, we finally had time to chat with Esdras (who at that point was our only translator for the day). Esdras was from Guatemala City where he was at seminary studying to become a youth pastor. He learned English in school and seemed pretty fluent in it. Far far better than I am at Spanish. For day two, Esdras taught Mary Ann and I a new phrase: Dios te Bendiga (God be with you). It’s a fantastic closing line for the pharmacy. Until then, I’d felt really odd passing people’s prescriptions to them and not having any decent parting words for them, other than to say “de nada” when they said “Gracias.” It just didn’t seem right to me. But “Dios te Bendiga” was perfect, though often the patients would say it to me before I could say it to them.

Since we had things under control in the pharmacy, we each took some time to wander out of the cage now and then for brief walks through the clinic hallway. The hallway itself was lined with plastic patio chairs in which patients sat to await their turn with the docs, the dentists and the docs and dentists-in-training. I made it a point to smile at everyone, especially the children. Almost always, the patients smiled back, allowing us to cut through the language barrier.

Since both our team and the team from Racine brought loads and loads of toys and crayons and fun things for children, I was starting to feel left out that we didn’t have any of that sort of thing in the pharm-cage to hand out to kids. I did have some bubble stuff, a few toy cars and some juggling balls stashed away, but I hadn’t broken into that stash yet. The bus station was also kind of close quarters for juggling or bubbles. So instead, I got a bag of candy from one of our suitcases full of goodies and and loaded up the cell phone pocket of my shorts with peppermints. Throughout the day, whenever I saw kids who didn’t seem to be having a good time, I would pull out a mint and offer it to help brighten things up. Or so I thought.

During one of my sojourns into the hallway, I spied just such an unhappy little boy. He was probably 1 or 2 years old, seated on one of the plastic chairs next to his mother’s chair and he was just throwing the most enormous tantrum. The mom had been given a stuffed animal and was trying to coax him into being quiet with it. He wasn’t having any of that, though. He shoved it aside and kept right on squawling. Then I walked up. In my head, I envisioned the joy his face would take on when I offered him a piece of candy. His little eyes would dry up and all his woes from before would vanish as he accepted it. This in mind, I reached into my pocket and held out the piece of candy to him. The little boy stopped crying, peered at the candy in my hand, then reached out and shoved my hand away as hard as he could and started screaming even louder. It was disappointing and hilarious at the same time.

Another attempt to charm kids worked far better. Even though we didn’t have a lot of candy and toys in the pharm-cage, we did have something cooler. We had a bag of little plastic pen-lights donated to us by one of the drug-reps who regularly visit Doctor Allen. They’re just little four-inch plastic tubes that light up at one end when you squeeze the pocket clip. When I ran low on candy in my side-pocket, I loaded up with pen-lights. These I saved, because most of the kids we saw at the pharmacy already had either toys or crayons and coloring pages or something equally good that they were given at the other medical/dental stations. Sometimes, though, I’d see a kid who didn’t seem to have been given anything like that.

Sure enough, that afternoon I spied a little boy who only had a toothbrush. After catching his attention, I shined one of the penlights at him and saw his expression light up just like the pen had. I passed it to him and he grinned and said “Gracias” then dashed away. A little while later, I saw him again. He was waiting near the pharmacy and was playing with his pen-light while his little sister looked on with interest. She didn’t have anything cool, either. I ran back to the pharm-cage and dug up another pen light, which I gave to the little girl. She too lit up, making my heart sing.

On Tuesday, we didn’t see any sights that were as harrowing as those from Monday’s clinic. In fact, a number of patients were so pleased at having been treated that they wanted to give us all hugs after we filled their prescriptions. This was wonderful. It was kind of like receiving a tip for a job well-done.

I did hear about of a couple of amazing patients later on, though. One was an 89 year old woman who was no longer able to walk properly and was in real need of a wheelchair. Dr. Allen decided to buy her one with his own money, brought and earmarked for just that sort of thing. It would take a day for Marcello to arrange for its purchase and delivery, but the woman was overjoyed.

Another patient was a 101 year old man. Living past age 100 is a miracle in any country, but especially in this part of Guatemala, where life is generally pretty hard. The man was in fantastic health, though. The optometry station set him up with a pair of reading glasses and he was given vitamins, but beyond that he wasn’t really ailing. The major news about him, though, was that at age 101, he accepted Christ.

The only real trouble we had in the pharmacy was with our glucometers. One of the major diabetic supplies companies donated a suitcase full of glucometers that we were giving out to patients who’d been diagnosed as having diabetes. Mary Ann, fortunately, knew how to operate them and taught Esdras and me how. The only trouble came when we found that some of the batteries in the glucometers had run down, so we frequently had to go rummaging through the Glucometer suitcase to find working Glucometers. By the end of the week, we had taken the time to go through and test everything and separate the wheat from the chaff, as these things go. But early on it was a minor wrench in the works.

We wound up seeing far more patients on Tuesday than in Monday’s clinic.

Once again, around 4:30 my brain cut out and my functionality dramatically decreased. This didn’t help us at all, especially when it came to packing up the pharmacy at the end of the day. We were only scheduled to do the two clinic days in Chiquimuilla and so we had to pack everything up after clinic that evening. The plan was to drive all the supplies to our next clinic site, in Pasaco, where we would set it up again before heading back to camp. The only problem with this was that the pharmacy is always the very last station to finish up because we’re the last place patients come. So we had to fill all the prescriptions for all the patients before we could really start tearing down the store.

I did try to get ahead of this by piling all of our stock meds—such as the 50 bottles of liquid Ibuprophen and Tylenol and other standard drugs we had a lot of—in Emilio’s now empty cubby hole next door. My plan was to get all the in-pharmacy meds together with their stock counterparts so we could see how much of any given drug we had. I also wanted to organize the whole shebang as we packed it up by doing so in alphabetical order. This would make set up at Pasaco far easier, (or so I thought). As tired as we all were and as little as my brain was functioning, none of this was simple.

I’m pretty sure there were some people on the team who weren’t too happy with me for not just chunking it all in suitcases and sorting it out later. My method certainly took much longer and everyone wanted to just go. The way I saw it, the organization would HAVE to be done sometime that night and would tie things up either there or in Pasaco, so it might as well be there. I did not want a repeat of Monday’s pharmacy set up at our new location. I wanted to have everything organized so we could just put it on shelves (assuming we had any).

The other problem with my method is that it was not a group project. Sure, we could yell “Chorpheniramine!” and someone in the hall would grab up our stock of Chlortrimeton and bring it in to us, but otherwise it was best to have as few people in the cage as possible. So Ashley and I did most of the med-packing, in REVERSE alphabetical order, leaving Mary Ann and a few others to tidy up supplies. It really only took about 20 minutes to do, but it seemed like far longer. We had one last look around our now empty site and then headed for the bus.

“Goodbye pharmacy cage. You were miserable to work in, but you served us well.”

On the bus we learned that we would not be headed to Pasaco for setup after all but were headed back to camp instead. We’d had a pretty late day of it and were not in need of another huge unloading session just yet.

Back at the camp, we watched another slide show of the day’s photos, while we ate, and we all rejoiced at the happy faces among the photos of the patients and the beautiful children. It’s fantastic to see photos of people as they are being helped. We don’t get to see a lot of that in the pharmacy, even with our frequent walks through the clinic in the day. Just seeing the faces displayed on the screen makes all our work so worth it.

After the show, we had our evening devotional and heard the testimony of one of the local staff. We also learned that a great many of the missionary and translator staff had stayed on the bus and had gone to unload all the equipment at our new clinic site, sparing us from having to do it in the morning. I’m all at once grateful that they did this and upset that more work was taken off Gringo shoulders and put on the local staff. We greeted the missionaries and translators with huge applause as they returned to eat the well-deserved plates of food that had been set aside for them.

Butch had purchased a pre-paid cellphone so that team-members could call home if they needed to. The phone had been available since day one of the mission, but neither Ashley nor I had used it to phone home. After we were dismissed, I borrowed it to finally do so since we figured someone back home ought to know we made it okay. Granted, both sets parents knew that no news is good news when it comes to this sort of work, but it’s always nice to get SOME news. I considered calling Ashley’s parents and having them call mine. However, it was 10 p back home and they would be very much asleep. So I called my dad, whom I knew would still be up. He was very happy to hear from us. I could sense that he seemed to want to talk longer, maybe to tell me of his latest adventures with Venusian flu or something similar, but he cut himself short, realizing we only had time for a touching of bases at 60 cents per minute. Dad said he would phone Red & Susie the next day and let them know we were fine.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 2 STATS
Patients Seen: 540
Prescriptions Filled: 508
Salvations/Rededications: 160

NEXT

DATELINE: Monday, March 21, 2005

CLINIC DAY 1:

I woke up at 4 a.m. with something akin to a minor anxiety attack. I’m not usually an anxiety attack prone person, though I admit to having spent many an Hour of the Wolf worrying over things I have no control over. This one was no different. Instead of worrying about my first clinic, though, I was worried about my stupid cat back home in West Virginia. I could just imagine her curled up on the edge of the bed meowing pittifully to herself because we hadn’t come home. And she would have nearly two more weeks of that before we came back. I know it sounds sort of dumb in retrospect, but that’s how my head works. After lying there for nearly an hour fighting to get to sleep and failing because I kept hearing mewing in my head, I took a moment and prayed for the little beast. I prayed her time alone would not be painful and that God would lessen her anxieties as well as mine. After that, I went to sleep.

At 5:30, I woke up again and stayed woke up. I wanted to sleep longer, as I actually had until 6:30 before breakfast was served, but I also wanted to get up and grab any available water the showers might have. Sure enough, there was some. Evidently the water pump had found some life during the night and was able to send some water up to the hillside tanks above us. I used it to its fullest. It was so nice to be clean.

It was also nice NOT to be a walking pile of ache, as I had expected. Not even my feet ached, though, and they ache on most days.

Breakfast was pancakes and more fresh fruit.

Afterwards, we held our morning bi-lingual devotional with Pastor Douglas, during which he talked about the need to call upon God’s help for our clinics that week. We also had prayer in Spanish and English for the doctors and medical staff who would be ministering to the physical needs of the patients and for the missionary staff who would minister to their spiritual needs.

We all knew what kind of stressful atmosphere we were about to go into—or at least we thought we did. At this point, I knew I was scarcely prepared for the job I’d been assigned and knew how much of a seat of the pants operation our set up would be. The night before, I’d been happy to leave the clinic site with no set up just because I was hot and tired, but that was looking like less of a good idea today. I was just hoping and praying that we could set up our pharmacy before the doctors could see too many patients and send them to overwhelm us. Whatever the case, I knew that we were doing God’s work and he would assist us and lend us strength to accomplish it. We just had to keep our faith. (Always easier said.)

For our first week’s clinics, our WV team was originally to have three Osteopathic physicians, but one of them, Dr. Wadell, developed some rather nasty stomach problems days before the trip and was forced to stay home. We came with Dr. Allen and Dr. Lally. Assisting them would be three first year students (Carrie, Sarah, Dwan and J.C.). Our two fourth year medical students (my wife Ashley and her friend Flo) and third year med-student (Andrew) would be seeing patients on their own, consulting with the doctors as need be. The team from Wisconsin came armed with two dentists, a dental surgeon and several dental students. We also had two midwives, at least one nurse and a number of non-medical personnel, including Dr. Waddell’s wife Sandra and their daughter, plus the daughter of one of the dentists, quite a number of local missionaries and translators and one library assistant (i.e. me). All together our group was probably pushing 90 people.

Our trip back to the bus-station took around 20 minutes. On the way, we passed probably 50 people who were either waiting by the side of the road for a ride or were walking along the edge of the road on their way to work. So many people in the area have to walk everywhere they go. Or catch rides in the backs of pickup trucks. I don’t think we saw a truck that didn’t have at least ten people in it the entire time we were there.

We arrived at the bus station clinic around 8 a.m. Mary Ann and I, already apprehensive and prayerful, were horrified to find that our little green jail cell of a pharmacy contained none of our requested shelving. We didn’t relish having to jump from duffel bag to duffel bag, rooting through bottles and baggies of pills to find the drugs we’d need for each prescription. We needed shelving! I started searching the bus-station for some shelves. I found a ready supply of plastic lawn tables with removable legs. These had been given to the entire team for our use. I figured two of them stacked would make for half-way decent shelving with room for storage beneath. Four of them were even better. Of course, it would be kind of difficult to reach the meds on the top tier in the back, but some shelves were better than no shelves. Still we had an awful lot of drugs to store, so taller shelving with more actual shelves was still needed. I left the pharmacy cage and began searching again.

Before I could search very far, Butch came to tell us it was time to introduce the mission team to the crowd. Crowd? I hadn’t seen a crowd? Where was the crowd? Mary Ann and I left our shelf setup in the pharmacy cage and followed Butch, Dr. Allen and a number of other med-staffers down the long hall that made up the clinic proper and around the corner. There we found the rest of the mission team gathered for prayer. Afterwards we began filing through a doorway at the end of the corridor that led into the open market area of the bus-station where we found ourselves standing at the edge of several dozen locals seated in plastic lawn chairs. This was ostensibly the pre-waiting room for the clinic where the patients who arrived earlier and received a number card wait.

The way our medical mission clinic system worked was like this: potential patients arrived in the morning before the medical team. They were each issued a numbered card–essentially their “ticket” into the clinic–until all the allotted cards for the first half of the day had been distributed. (Probably 60 cards total. More cards were distributed later in the morning and even into the afternoon once it was clear what the patient turnover rate was and we could tell if there would be time in the day to see more patients.) At this point the patients were brought to the pre-waiting area where they are seated and eventually introduced to both the medical team and the mission team. One of the missionaries, usually Butch with Marcello translating, then explained the clinic/mission process. The patients were told how the entire med/mission team was there to minister to both physical and spiritual needs. On the physical side, the patients would be seeing doctors and the doctors would diagnose them and give them a prescription for medicine, all free of charge. The fact remained, though, that we could not give them a life-time supply of medicine and what we were able to give them would be gone within a month or so. However, the news of the gospel that the mission team was there to share did come in a lifetime and even after-lifetime supply. Every patient there would be given the chance to hear the gospel message. No one had to accept it or even listen to it if they didn’t want to. But every patient would be given the chance to talk one on one with a missionary. Regardless of their decision, they would still see a doctor and be treated. The missionaries were just there to offer more.

The only thing I really knew about the medical side of things was what I had heard from Ashley and from Dr. Wallace, (the physician who had been the medical team leader for Ash’s 2003 mission). Dr. Wallace contends that the only “real medicine” he ever gets to practice is when he’s doing mission work. When he’s in his office in the states, there are a myriad of do’s and don’t’s that restrict the way he can work. One naturally thinks of HMO’s and insurance companies and the many rules and regs associated with them, not to mention mal-practice insurance, but there are other pitfalls for the average doc too. For instance, if a doctor sees patients whose care is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, that doctor is extraordinarily restricted in what he can do for any other patient he sees. Let’s say the doctor sees a patient who is not on Medicare and does not have insurance to pay for their treatment; that doctor might want to cut the patient a break and treat them for free, but under Federal regulations legally cannot do so because he or she accepts Medicaid patients. Cutting a non-Medicaid patient a break while seeing other Medicaid patients is tantamount to Medicaid fraud and the doctor could be fined incredible amounts of money. A doc can get around that by simply not accepting Medicaid patients, but then they would be cutting out a good portion of their patient base. That’s just one example of the kind of things physicians in this country have to worry about that they don’t in Central America.

On a medical mission, such rules and regs are pretty much thrown out the window. Such rules are not as strict in Central America to begin with. And if the mission doc sees a condition that needs treating then and there, he’s not going to refer the patient to another doc more specialized in taking care of it unless one happens to be standing within 20 feet at the time. Teeth get pulled, bones get reset, wounds get treated, medicines get prescribed and emergencies taken care of, all by the clinic docs. Basically, the job that needs doing gets done with no red-tape. (It’s how things used to work for family practice docs nationwide.) Granted, some things are beyond the scope of a medical mission staff and have been known to get shipped to the nearest emergency room, but for the most part if it walks in to the mission clinic it gets taken care of there.

As we were led out in front of the crowd and Marcello introduced the group of us in Spanish as the mission team. We then each took turns introducing ourselves to the patients, saying our name and what sub-group we belonged to. It felt very weird to say I was on the medical team, but that was my role for the week.

I stood there in line with my fellow team-members and tried to be patient, but my mind was screaming at me that what I needed to be doing was setting up the pharmacy and finding shelves to aid in that search. I’d seen some shelves in a caged and locked cubby-hole shop before, but had been told they were privately owned and we could not borrow them. While I stood there before the crowd, at one end of the bus-station’s open air market, I spied at the other end of the market area a set of tall gray metal shelves. They were next to a cubby-hole shop that was actually open, but the shelves weren’t being used.

After the introductions were finished, Butch explained that the med team’s needed to leave to go prepare their stations. I made a dash for those shelves. They were perfect! Tall, metal and gray, about six tiers worth of shelving, seven if we used the top. However, I didn’t want to take them without permission. I tracked down Mrs. Hounko again and asked her about the shelves. They didn’t seem to be in use and were sitting out in the open where we could get to them. She said she would ask the manager of the bus station and see if we could.

Meanwhile, back at the pre-wating area, Dr. Allen had stayed behind to offer his testimony to the gathered patients. This was a daily occurrence during the clinics, with a different team member giving their testimony every day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for any of the testimonies the first week, because I was busy seeing to the pharmacy. During the second week, though, I did hear a few and found them very affecting. It’s always intriguing to hear how the people came to know Jesus. Often, they do so despite fighting against it for years. And it can be even more amazing when you knew the person before salvation and can see what a life-altering change is made following it. (My own testimony is very normal and not terribly exciting in this regard. I’ve had my share of on-again/off-again time with the lord, a problem that I still struggle with. I’ll probably share it before this blog has finished.)

Mary Ann and Ashley were back in the pharmacy cage, assembling the tables I’d found into makeshift shelves. We began stocking these with meds, starting with the A’s. However, our luggage full of meds was not arranged in any particular order, let alone alphabetical, so there was much running and searching of bags to find what we needed. And we always found something we forgot to stock later and had to make space for it. Also, while many of our meds were of the pre-bagged variety, that we’d dosed out the night before, there were plenty of others that had not been counted and were still in big bottles. We just stocked those too and worried about the counting part later. We could see, though, that we were quickly running out of room on our make-shift patio table shelving. That was when Mrs. Hounko came to the rescue. She arrived with two gentlemen who carried in our requested metal shelves, set them up in the open corner of the pharm-cage and even wiped them off for us. We started shifting stock quick. Even with the shelves, though, we didn’t have room for all the meds, but after relocating our vast vitamin supplies to the floor, we felt like we were still in good shape.

During this chaos, the two people who were to be our primary pharmacy translators for the trip arrived. Their names were Cynthia and Esdras. Both looked to be in their late teens or early 20’s. We didn’t have time to chat much with them, though, because we were under deadline to get set up. They both chipped in to help us out and before long we had our makeshift pharmacy mostly set up, or at least as set up as it was going to get before our first patient arrived.

The job of pharmacist was pretty intimidating at first. As I said, I know little of pharmaceuticals beyond household painkillers, so I was initially terrified that I would make a massive screw up and do someone harm. However, I soon came to see that, for the most part, I didn’t really have to know anything about the drugs to do the job. Being a medical mission pharmacist mostly involved dispensing drugs as per doctor’s instructions as deciphered from cryptic dosage codes written in bad handwriting on the back side of each patient’s history sheet. It was also good that Mary Ann, my partner in med-slinging, is a nurse who knows from bad handwriting. She gave me further pointers by writing out some pharmaceutical codes for me to follow, that the doctors would be using.

qd = one pill per day
bid = two pills per day
tid = three pills per day
qid = four pills per day
hs = bed time (or hour of sleep)

There were also symbols for the quantity of pills to take with each dose, ranging from 1 to 3. These look like Roman numerals, without the bottom bar and with the addition of corresponding dots above the upper bar. As long as I could properly interpret these and other such instructions I was fine. And when I couldn’t, Mary Ann usually could. In extreme cases, we sometimes had to go track down the docs themselves to see what they meant, but usually we had it sussed out pretty good.

These codes were also easily transferred to our non-language based instruction slips we brought with us and which we included in each baggie of meds. The slips consisted of four panels featuring a face with a pill being shoved in its mouth. In each panel, there was also a time indicator, such as a sun rising for morning, sun at mid-day for noon, sun setting for evening or a moon for night. We’d circle the morning face for once a day, morning and night faces for one pill every 12 hours, three faces for a pill every 8 hours, and all four faces for every 6 hours. Beyond that, we also had Cynthia and Esdras conveying the dosing instructions in Spanish to help explain our circled cartoons. It was a simplistic way of doing things, but that’s what the job required. The docs were each seeing between 40 and 60 patients per day each, but we were seeing ALL of them. And when seeing hundreds of patients, you don’t have time to mess around with complicated instructions unless the instructions are actually complicated. We had our moments for that too.

For instance, some of the meds, such as Amoxyl, came in powder form and required mixing and refrigeration by the patients themselves. The amount of water to be added to the poweder was not measured in teaspoons, though, but 74 milliliters. So we had to mark medicine cups for them at the 30 milliliter and 15 milliliter marks and show them how they would have to pour two 30 milliliter amounts and one 15 milliliter amount, (Yes, I know, this makes 75 milliliters, but lets not pick nits), into the bottle and shake it all up. Then we had to mark the medicine cup for the 1/2 teaspoon amount of mixed medicine they would have to give to their child. This is where the translators Esdras and Cynthia became invaluable to us, because after we’d explained it to them only a couple of times, they knew exactly what to tell the patients and from there on out we just had to pass them a bottle of Amoxyl and say, “This is the Amoxyl/mixing/refrigeration speech,” and they’d go right to it.

After only a handful of patients had come through, I started feeling more confident about the job. Ashley had stayed with us to help for the first 10 patients or so before being called away to start seeing patients herself. It was a little scary to me at first that she wasn’t there as our safety net, but I didn’t have much time to worry as more patients came flying at us. I tell you, having the experience of working Mondays at the library certainly prepared me well for the stress of the pharmacy cage that day. In fact, I daresay I’ve had worse days at the library. Just not for 12 hours straight.

Even with only Mary Ann and I inside the cage, it was still terribly hot. I was sweating profusely and constantly wiping it away with my arms so as not to soil my hands. Eventually, I went and found a wash cloth to use as a sweat rag, and I carried it everywhere I went. When I did manage to soil my hands, I was very careful to wipe them down with my ready supply of hand-sanitizer before continuing with the pills. I also made frequent trips to the bano to wash them with soap and water and then more hand-sanitizer. The patients didn’t seem to mind that we were sweating. They were sweating too. It’s just one of the realities of being trapped in a cage in a sweltering bus-station. Before too long into the day, Marcello brought in a fleet of oscillating fans to set up at each medical station. Our pharmacy cage power outlet wasn’t working properly, though, so our fan had to be set up across the hall and pointed toward us. Unfortunately, most of the wind was blocked by the patients waiting for their prescriptions. The fan wasn’t entirely ours, either, as Ashley’s doctor station was two cubbies down from us and she needed air too, so the fan oscilated between us. We were all pretty uncomfortable.

As I said, we still had pills that we needed to count out individually, because they had not been among those pills that were pre-dosed before. Mostly we had to do this with Naproxen Sodium and Cipro, two drugs that the docs were prescribing loads of. In some cases, like for children, the prescription required a smaller milligram dosage than the pills naturally come in. In such cases, we would have to cut the pills in half. Most of the time this was easy enough, as we did bring a pill splitter with us. The splitter only worked with round pills, though, so for long pills, like Cipro, we needed to use Mary Ann’s extry-sharp Swiss Army pocket knife. (It was a brand new knife, so it was clean!) I split those on a cutting board, cupping my hand over the pill as I cut it to prevent pieces from shooting out between my fingers. However, during one pill-cutting session, my cupped thumb wound up beneath the knife and when I chopped down on the pill it also chopped into my thumbnail, cutting into it at an angle from the tip down to about half an inch in. It didn’t hurt, but I immediately knew that I’d cut through the nail pretty deep. I was afraid I’d start bleeding, but other than a little blood beneath the nail, I was fine.

I was proud that, uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t start howling like a girl about my wound. I just slapped a Band-aid on it, acted like a real man and went back to my job. I became even more proud of this good behavior a few minutes later when a patient arrived at the pharmacy counter who had a wound far far worse than I pray I ever have or see again.

The wounded patient was a 73 year old woman, tiny, thin and frail-looking. She reminded me a lot of my Mamaw, only with long gray and black hair tied back in a pony-tail. She would have looked like any number of elderly patients we’d seen that day, but for one difference. Covering the right side of her face, around her eye, was a new white bandage that had been taped to her temples and brow. The woman had been led to us by Astrid, one the missionary translators who had been working with Dr. Allen that morning, who was holding on to the lady’s arm, steadying her and slowly guiding her to the counter of the pharmacy cage. (We didn’t yet know Astrid, but we would come to appreciate both her immense skills as a translator and her sweet spirit as the week progressed.)

As the lady passed her prescription to us, I first noted that it was written for antibiotic cream. Then, out of curiosity, I looked back up at the lady to her makeshift eye patch. The bandage didn’t quite reach all the way to her nose, and at the edge of it there I could see that part of the side of her nose was actually missing, just above her nostril. It was a crescent shaped wound but you could see from the size of the bandage that the visible portion of the wound was only a tiny part of the whole and that it likely extended across her entire eye orbit, if not onto her cheek itself.

I was only a little bit shocked at the sight initially, not having time to really consider the ramifications of such a wound. The lady didn’t seem to be in any pain, however. So I shrugged it off and started filling her prescription for antibiotic cream.

Most of our cream meds were in large tubes, which we parceled out smaller amounts from in little mini-zip-lock baggies. However, most of our anti-biotic cream came in little individual sample packets. The prescription didn’t specify how much cream to dispense, but I knew that if she was meant to put it on that wound for any amount of time she would be needing a lot of it. I loaded up a baggie for her with cream-samples and gave it to her. She smiled and thanked us and Astrid led her away.

Only after she had gone did I begin to wonder what had happened to the lady that could have caused such a wound? My imagination went into overdrive on this. One thing was certain, though: I knew that I would never again complain about having to stand in a hot and sweaty cage with a little self-inflicted cut through my thumbnail. Such things no longer mattered. That poor lady was living through far worse and did so with a smile. We would learn far more about this lady that evening.

We didn’t have time to dwell on what we’d seen. More patients and more prescriptions came at us fast and we were having to scramble. We could mostly keep up with it and didn’t have huge lines until one of us would run into trouble with a particular prescription. Usually our trouble was that the doc who’d written it hadn’t specified something that needed specifying, like how many pills should the person take and how often. Other times the docs would use the drug-name for the drugs and not the commercial name (for instance Ranatidine instead of Zantac) and I’d have to figure out what they meant. This affected me more than Mary Ann, who almost always knew which was which. I still had to go around making little duct-tape labels of all the different double named drugs we were commonly prescribing. And in other cases, we simply couldn’t find the medicine at all either due to our having misplaced it among the shelves or not having unloaded it from one of the four suitcases and shipping cartons in the first place. These stock-cases were scattered in different places down the corridor and we’d have to run and dig through them all before finding it. One of them, we discovered, had been left on the bus, so I had to find Oswald and his “bus key,” a.k.a. Marcello’s daughter, to help me fetch it. It went on like that all day long.

Just keeping up with the never-ending stream of patients bearing prescriptions was stressful enough. And even if I wasn’t going to complain about it, doing so under the conditions of heat, humidity and sweat made it even worse. In such an environment, tempers are apt to flare and I was afraid mine would be no exception to that. I’m well known in my house and sometimes at my place of employment for not dealing terribly well with stress. I have been known to growl and snarl and have on occasion been known to utter ear-blistering curses when under such stress. Oh, I keep it together pretty well during my solo Monday hell-shifts at the library, but prolonged exposure to such stress had me worried that I might crack. The entire mission team had been told to be on our best behavior and to always have a smile on our faces, because the locals would be watching us carefully. Here we were, ostensibly a group of Christians coming into towns to do work and help save souls. If we didn’t look the part, if we got angry or seemed unhappy at having to do the job that we’re doing, the locals would likely draw conclusions, maybe even correct conclusions, that we’d rather not have them draw. And I knew that the pharmacy was very important in this regard; after all, it would be the last impression most patients would have of our team and if we were short-tempered and growly, it would not be a good one. I had prayed at the start of the day for God to give everyone on the team strength in this regard, but especially me. I had known things were likely to get ugly and I wanted emotional backup from on high when it did. And I have to say that throughout the day, with very few exceptions, I remained blissfully calm and a smile—a genuine smile—was never far from my lips. I suppose I should not be surprised, for it was exactly what I’d prayed for. I think the entire team fell under this blanket of calm.

Another of the people on the medical team none of us had yet met was Emilio Salizar. Emilio was a 4th year medical student in Guatemala who looked like he was probably in his mid-20s. Sometime late in the morning he set up a clinic cubby-hole directly next door to the pharmacy. Emilio didn’t speak very much English, so we had to let Esdras do the introductions and interpreting. Much like my 4th year med-student wife, Emilio was there to see patients too. He had an advantage over the American docs, though, in that he didn’t have to have a translator on the patient end of things in order to do his job, so he was able to see far more patients far faster than most everyone else. The only real trouble came on our end, which is where the translation wound up shifting. Emilio would prescribe drugs with brand names we’d never heard of. And in Spanish. So most of the time we needed Esdras or Cynthia to translate the prescriptions before we could fill them. Often they would not be familiar with the drugs in question either and we’d have to go to Emilio himself and often consult Mary Ann’s PDA, which was equipped with Epocrates, a program for cross-referencing drugs and their international brand names. Emilio was wonderfully patient with us, especially the times he would come to ask us if we had a particular med and we’d just throw up our hands in classic “Beats me” pose. He would just grin and we’d start trying to help figure out what he needed. He became a familiar sight in the pharmacy during our clinics that week, often accompanying his patients, checking to see what meds we had on hand and then writing prescriptions right there. This didn’t bother us one bit. What ever it took to work things out was all fine with us.

Around 12:30 it was time for lunch. Since there were so many patients still waiting, we didn’t want to shut down the whole clinic for lunch so we were going to take it in shifts. Mary Ann volunteered to go second shift so she could eat with her husband, so I was to take first.

Lunch was served a few doors down from the bus-station itself, at what appeared to be an outdoor bar next to the local fire-station. We had a choice of either chicken sandwiches or hamburgers. My burger was pretty good, though I did notice the presence of a mysterious pink sauce on it that seemed to be a condiment. Our theory, upon later discussion, was that this was the Guatemalan version of “special sauce”, i.e. Thousand Island dressing. Only the ketchup to mayonnaise ratio seemed skewed more toward ketchup, making it pink instead of Thousand Island-colored. This would not be the last time I would meet this particular sauce during my time in Central America.

I didn’t hang around long after I’d finished eating. Though I did want a break, I knew the pharmacy was bound to be busy and Mary Ann would need relief. I also knew that once she and Dr. Allen went to lunch, the traffic would drop off considerably due to the fact that Dr. Allen wouldn’t be pumping patients through like the pro he is. And on this theory, I was right. Things slowed right down. I had time to talk to Esdras and Cynthia between prescriptions. Esdras gave me pointers on my Spanish. I’d been using a little that day, saying things like “Uno por dias” and “Dos por dias” for pill amounts to take. Esdras pointed out that I should actually be saying “Uno por DIA” as it was one per day and not days.

After Mary Ann & Dr. Allen returned from lunch, the clinic had its first emergency case of the day. It began with raised voices looking for Dr. Allen. I didn’t find out the details until later, but the emergency case was a man with a possible spider bite or scorpion sting on his leg. The wound had occurred some days before and had begun to redden and began to develop into cellulitis, an infection of the skin itself. The man had taken some Amoxicilin for it, which is an anti-biotic that’s available over the counter in Guatemala, but it’s not the right kind of anti-biotic to treat cellulitis, so the condition worsened. All the while he continued going to work, getting sicker by the day as the cellulitis infection spread through his bloodstream and made him septic until he collapsed that morning. When they brought him in he was burning up with a fever, dehydrated, delirious and unable to move his arms properly. Dr. Allen began treating him with a drip IV and came to us for liquid anti-biotics and other anti-biotic pills. Cooling him off was definitely part of the treatment too because at one point Butch came over and asked if he could borrow our fan. He said they needed it for a guy who was dying.

“Yes! Please! Go! Take it!” I said. I’m thinking, Don’t ask for the fan–just take it! He’s dying!

The man lived, but from what Dr. Allen said later it was a close thing and he might not have been out of the woods entirely. The man lay on a makeshift cot for much of the day until he finally woke up and by the end of the day he seemed pretty coherent as he walked the halls with his IV.

In the afternoon, Butch came to take my camera. Before joining Word of Life, he used to work for an IT department and is thus a fully wired dude of much computer savvy. He had brought his laptop, a speaker system and a video projector. (Butch was also never ever out of proximity to his PDA, on which he kept our daily clinic stats, syncing it up with the laptop every day.) Butch’s master plan was to collect all the digital cameras from the staff and download their pictures onto his laptop to save to DVD later. This way everyone on the team could have a copy of everyone’s pictures. It was a great idea.

Right around 4:30, my brain stopped working. It evidently had decided it had had enough activity for the day and was no longer going to function at peak capacity. The result of this was that I could no longer think clearly and everything I did took twice as long because I kept having to stop and refocus my brain on the task at hand. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated, so I chugged down some more water. Nope. Brain just stopped workin’ right. Of course, this is when we became the busiest.

Cynthia and Esdras dove in to help us out with the rush. By that time in the day, they’d seen most of what we were dispensing and knew the dosage amounts to circle almost better than we did. They jumped behind the counter and started dispensing, being certain to confirm with one of us that what they were doing was right. I never saw them make a mistake.

We were supposed to shut down the clinic at 5, but everyone knew this was an arbitrary deadline to be ignored. If we still had patients in the hopper to see, we’d stay until they were seen. The docs kept working and we kept dispensing until 7:30 p. Even after the last patient received their meds, we couldn’t really relax. So much of our medicine still needed counting and pre-dosing and we’d even run out of some of the dosed meds and would have to count out more from the stock supplies. We knew we’d have to haul a chunk of it back to camp to do later and after the draining day we’d already had, this thought nearly exhausted us. We proved this on the way back to camp, as several members of the team fell right to sleep, including Butch. Dr. Allen snapped his photo to give to Dr. Rich, who had fallen asleep at the church dedication the day before and had been photographed by Butch.

We got back to camp around 8 and learned that the water pump had been replaced during the day so the showers were running at full capacity. Yay! The transformer was still having issues, but as long as we only ran the one air-conditioner per cabin, we’d be okay. Sounded like heaven to me.

I dumped my stuff at the cabin and came down for dinner. Butch was at the pavilion setting up the slide show, going through and rotating the images so that everything was upright. He used a freeware slide-show program that allowed him to play the slides with music. The first song up was “Let my Words be Few” by Phillips, Craig & Dean. It’s a beautiful song and fit right in with the images that began flashing up on the screen above. I sat down to watch, seeing images of the medical team and dental team doing their jobs. Only then was I really struck with the incredible nature of what had taken place that day. Oh, sure, I had known in a kind of On Paper way that the mission was doing a lot of good, but I’d been trapped in the cage all day and had seen very little of the treatment, except on occasional bano breaks. Seeing it on the screen really brought it home and I knew that I had taken part in something far greater than myself.

Then the slide clicked over to a shot of the lady with the eye wound—only without her bandage covering it. As bad as I had imagined that wound to be from just the little glimpse I’d had of the edge of it, the reality was far far worse. Her entire ocular orbit was simply missing, from just above her nostril across her cheek and to the brow ridge. Gone. It looked like something you wouldn’t believe in a horror movie, yet there it was in full color. It was too much for me. The weight of the day fell on me hard and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so very sorry for that poor old woman with half of her face missing. What had caused that? Dear, God, what had caused that? And all we had been able to do for her was give her a baggie of anti-bacterial cream.

I couldn’t take it. I walked away from the pavilion and into the darkness, down the hill toward the lake, and I just cried and cried. I had known my emotions had been close to the surface all afternoon, but now I couldn’t control them at all. I just stared into the darkness with tears streaming down my face while Phillips, Craig and Dean sang, “Jesus, I am so in love with you. And I stand in awe of you, Jesus.” And I found myself in awe. Surely there had to be some greater purpose in this woman’s life. Maybe she was meant to live as an example of goodness in the face of such a woeful injury. But what a price! It absolutely broke my heart.

I prayed then for the old woman. I prayed that God would take her home rather than let her suffer. Or if that was not his will, that God would make her the example of a beautiful soul shining through the tragedy that I hoped she already was. I just wanted her to have blessings in this life and to gain her deserved reward in the next. It was one of those moments in life that seem so incredibly unfair and make you wonder how God could allow such a thing to have happened. But the thing about God is, he knows what he’s doing. He has a plan and it will be carried out in his good time. That may sound like excuse-making to non-Christians, but I’ve seen it happen and I prayed that I had seen it in that lady’s face that day.

After ten minutes or so, I was out of tears. I could see Ashley sitting back at one of the tables beneath the pavilion lights. I wiped my face and went back up to sit beside her. She wasn’t in much better shape than me, emotionally, but she had a glorious smile on her face through the tears as she watched the slides from the day. She could see it too; the good that had been done by just a few people.

Later, Dr. Allen told us about the old woman. He had treated her. She is in her early 70’s and had received a burn to the eye from hot oil nearly 15 years ago. Her eye couldn’t be saved then and without medical care the surrounding tissue, starved of blood by the burns, began to slowly necrose. The wound has continued to increase in size since then and she was in horrible pain for many years because of it. But eventually, the nerves that were in the area died out and for the past two years she has had no pain from the wound at all. She keeps it very clean and washes it out every day. She had not even come in to the clinic seeking treatment for the wound itself, but simply wanted to know if we could give her a bandage to cover it because she didn’t like how it looked. Dr. Allen said he loaded her up with bandages.

I continued to be emotional throughout the evening, but I was far from the only one. As Butch read the stats of the day to us, we learned that the clinic saw over 500 patients that day and 117 of them accepted Christ, with many others reaffirming their existing faith. The medical treatment is definitely the draw that gets people in, but clearly some leave with much more. We had to give that an “Amen!”

We were up later than we wanted to be with our evening devotional, but we knew it was important. It was a time for people to share things they had seen throughout the clinic day and give thanks. The translators and local missionary staff seemed impressed at the energy of the medical team. We too were impressed by theirs. It may not seem like it would take much energy to translate languages, but it can be brain-taxing work. From all reports, the translators are fantastic and I already knew that ours were.

Afterwards, starting at 9:30 or so, we began the arduous task of pill sorting and counting once again. I really didn’t want to be there. I so wanted to go to the showers and then climb into bed, but I knew we had to keep plugging away or tomorrow would be far worse. Second day at any clinic setting is always busier than the first, because word gets out and word of mouth spreads fast. We had to have these things pre-counted or we’d be forever counting pills the next day. We had lots of volunteer help from the medical and dental team. As we started to work, Butch kept his laptop going and began showing funny little video clips he’d been collecting for years. The videos really lightened the mood and made the work go faster. I was still dog-tired, but at that moment I just felt great that we were laughing and continuing to work toward a larger goal that was bigger than any of us.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 525
Prescriptions Filled: 330
Salvations/Rededications: 114

 

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DATELINE: Sunday, March 20, 2005

My bunk house collectively woke up around 6 a.m. (Some before, some after, but that’s generally when everyone’s travel alarms began blaring.) I half expected my arms and feet to be throbbing limbs of pain from all the heavy-lifting the day before. Oddly, they didn’t. Such muscle pain usually doesn’t catch up with me for at least a day anyway, so I figured I’d be one giant ache, come Monday—just in time for clinic day.

I climbed out of bed and put on my flip-flops to go outside and have a look around in the daylight. The camp was gorgeous. Sure, it’s still very much under construction and there are plenty of signs of that—from the exposed rebar near the pavilion to the as yet unlandscaped red dirt to piles of rocks that will be used for paving pathways—but there was a lot of potential. And down the hill from the bunk houses and pavilion was a fantastic lake. The sun had just come up over a nearby hill, casting light across the surface of the lake and making the picture I was seeing of the men in boats net-fishing even more beautiful. Fishermen: It’s an appropriate image for our mission plans for the week.

I needed some bano time to freshen up from my night’s semi-sweaty slumber. I also needed to brush my teeth. This is something of a complicated affair for Gringos in Central America. You can’t trust the local water in most places that you visit. It’s only mostly okay for washing up. Sure, it’ll get the visible dirt off your hands, but any microbial contaminants in the water will stay on your skin and have a nasty habit of getting into your mouth the next time you decide to chew on a fingernail. Granted, we’d been told by Marcello that the water at the camp comes from a deep well and was thus most likely free from nasty biological contaminants, but we were still encouraged to use only bottled water when brushing teeth and always slap on some hand-sanitizer after washing hands. I did pretty good on my first go-round with tooth brushing up until it was time to rinse off my toothbrush. I’d already turned on the sink’s faucet to wash the toothpaste spit down, so naturally my hand plunged my brush beneath it to rinse it off too.

“Ahhh!” I screamed, quickly snatching up my water bottle and dousing the end of my brush as though it were on fire. My fellow bano-mates assured me that I was probably fine, but it was still a bad sign to me this fresh out of the mission trip gate.

Most of us dressed in our Sunday best for the church service we were to attend. The mission materials we’d been sent ahead of time stressed that for all church services the ladies would need to wear a skirt and a nice shirt and men to wear slacks with a shirt and tie. I brought a short-sleeved blue shirt and yellow tie which went well with my tan corduroys. When I went out to breakfast, however, all the higher-ups from WOL were dressed in light colored polo shirts. It turns out that the person who wrote up the rules for Sunday dress had cut and pasted them from a similar document designed for a European mission trip and never considered that such rules of dress would be woefully uncomfortable in Central America. I soon ditched the tie and the t-shirt beneath after the morning heat started to build up.

We had a breakfast of fresh fruit and tasty Zucaritas! (the south of the border version of Frosted Flakes. Somehow they’re tastier than Frosted Flakes because you get to call them Zucaritas! and say it with an accent.)

At our breakfast devotional, we met Pastor Douglas, who had come in on a late flight at 10 p the night before and had arrived at the camp in the wee hours. I must have been sleeping good, because I never heard him come in. Pastor Douglas is the minister for a church in Atlantic City, NJ. and was to be our primary minister for the mission that week.

The church we were to attend was in the nearest large town, of Esquintla, just under an hour’s drive away. (I didn’t hear Marcello’s time guestimation on this one, but I’m sure he probably would have told us it was 20 minutes away.) I didn’t mind being back on the bus at all. I wanted to see more of Guatemala in the daylight and absorb as much detail as I could.

We passed by field after field of sugar cane, mango trees, banana and plantain trees and sometimes coffee bean orchards. Mostly the fields were empty, though, save for some of the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen. Not starving, skinny—or, not usually—but still some very slender cattle. We also passed a scary-looking Guatemalan prison, which Oswald told us, via Michelle’s translation, is called “Hell”. It looked the part.

There were three volcanos in the area as well. For such massive geological features, they sure could sneak up on you. This was partially because it was so humid that the hazy sky became almost sky blue itself. So, there you’d be, sitting on the bus, casually looking out at what you thought was clear blue sky until you see this flattened volcano mouth sticking out of a portion of it a mile or two up in the distance. It’s the kind of sight that gives you chills up your spine. We saw three of them this way.

The church in Equintla was a picturesque white cement block structure nestled in a small neighborhood of shops. Inside, locals sang familiar praise songs in Spanish. The band and singers they had there were extremely good, too, and we found ourselves getting into the spirit of the music quickly. The minister of the church soon called attention to our presence and told the congregation that we were in the country to do free clinics in small towns. He asked them to pray for us that week and to walk back to where we were seated and lay hands on us as they all prayed. Now, I’ve been to several churches where the laying on of hands is a common thing. It’s spoken of in the Bible and Christians are called upon to do it on occasion when moved to do so by God. It’s not usually done in my particular church, but I understand it happens. The laying on of hands in this church, however, was far from strange. It was no charasmatic display, but just a natural extension of prayer. There was power in it too. I wasn’t expecting to be emotionally affected by it, but I suddenly found my eyes welling up with tears as we prayed. Something about the outpouring of affection from complete strangers moved me. Immediately I began to worry that this was a bad emotional trend to start this early in the journey, but I went with it.

There were scooters everywhere in Equintla and on our way to lunch Oswald and Alex had to do some fancy team-driving to keep from smooshing them. We traveled to the nearest McDonalds. Outside was another guard with a shotgun.

McDonald’s in Guatemala is almost exactly like McDonald’s in America, only in Spanish. They also serve a few unexpected things, such as fried chicken. I later learned that McDonald’s also has a delivery service in some of the larger cities. It was not uncommon in Guatemala City, for instance, to see a McDonald’s delivery driver on a scooter.

While at lunch, we noticed a beach shop across the street and Ash and I decided to go over and see if we could get her a towel. Only after we crossed the street and entered the shop did it occur to either of us that we didn’t know the Spanish word for towel. We instantly became the stereotypical Americans on vacation, trying to convey towel to the clerk by any means up to and including pantomime, all the while yelling “TOWEL… TOWWWELLLL!” It was horrible. This “beach” shop didn’t have any towels either, so it was even more horrible.

After lunch, we drove an hour to our next destination, which was another church. This was an old community church that had outgrown its facilities. The 2004 mission team had evidently visited it last year when the minister had first proposed raising funds to construct a brand new building. It had not taken them even a year to raise the funds, some of which came from connections made by the Word of Life team. The building had been completed and we were there for the dedication ceremony.

The new building for the church was a little ways down a dirt road that ran through a small neighborhood community. I say neighborhood, for that is what it was, but it did not resemble any neighborhood I’ve seen in this country. It consisted of very simple cement block houses on plots of land that looked around a fourth of an acre. Some of the homes had chickens in the yard, some had gorgeous fruit-laden banana trees, and near some, children were playing and watching as this line of sweaty dressed up Gringos walked through their midst on the way to the new church building.

The church building itself was a large cement block structure with windows open to allow the breeze to pass through. Inside there were row upon row of plastic lawn chairs and ceiling fans overhead. However, being at the hottest part of the day the fans didn’t do much against the heat. Soon many of us found ourselves nodding off as the heat and rhythms of the all-Spanish service lulled us to sleep.

After the service, we bussed up and headed out to visit and set up our first clinic site. On the way we stopped at a gas-station so everyone could have a bano break and pick up snacks. I went inside. I didn’t find much in the way of snacks, but I did find a towel for Ashley. No more pillow-case showers for her.

The clinic site was nearly another hour’s drive in a little town called Chiquimuilla. The site itself was in a former bus-station turned strip-mall. Actually, calling it a strip-mall is a pretty generous description. It was more like the bus station had been carved into aisles, which were further broken up into little cubby-hole shop-spaces with a footprint of around 10′ by 8′. Some of these cubby-hole shop spaces were completely open while others had steel doors or cages to keep the contents safe. However, few of these cubby-holes were actually in use as shops and most stood empty save for dirt and trash. In the center of the bus station was a maze-like area of more unused cubby-holes and beyond that was a much larger and mostly cubby-free area that was being used as an open air market. The mayor of the town had hired the usual guys with shotguns to stand guard over the place all night so that none of the team’s equipment was stolen.

On previous missions with Word of Life, one of our local WV pharmacists, Fritz, had come along to do the pharmacy thing. He was unable to come this year, however. So at some point in our trip thus far, it was decided that Mary Ann Allen and I would be in charge of the pharmacy. Mary Ann made lots of sense, because she is a registered nurse and knows the meds pretty well. The logic for including me was that since I work in a library I must be good at organizing and classifying things. I don’t know about all that, but I had come on this trip to be of whatever use I could and working in the pharmacy sounded very useful, albeit a good ways out of my field of expertise. Everyone kept assuring me we’d be fine.

The pharmacy itself was to be set up in a cubby hole shop with a green caged front with a fold up cage window and sales-counter area. It looked like the canteen area for a prison. It was also far filthier and spidery than most folks care for in a pharmacy. Fortunately, the manager of the bus station was on hand and Marcello convinced him to have a few of his guys clean out the cell and mop the floors for us. They did right then and there and before long it looked good enough to use. Being a cramped little cubby-hole, though, we wouldn’t have much room for storing meds unless we were able to do so vertically. We stressed to Marcello the need for lots of shelving to hold all the meds. He asked the manager and was told we would have shelves by morning.

With no shelving, there wasn’t much we could do to set up the pharmacy. It didn’t help us that most of the medication we’d brought hadn’t even been sorted into dosage baggies yet, either. We resolved to cart all the meds back to the camp and do some sorting and predosing that evening in something far closer to a sterile environment.

Most of the other equipment on board the busses came with the dental team from Racine. They had brought portable dental chairs, drills, compressors, sterilizers and all manner of dental tools, which had to be set up. They went right to it and were still plenty busy when Marcello told the rest of us to load back up to return to camp. We’d been told that our clinic site was only five minutes away from the camp. It was actually around 20 minutes, which was still pretty short. Gringo Time strikes again, though.

After the dental team joined us at camp, we had a fantastic dinner of chicken, rice and fruit. I’ve never eaten so much melon, pineapple and mango in all my life, and it’s all great! We all stuffed ourselves, then sat around and sweated while we began our evening meeting where we were introduced to the rest of the national staff of translators and helpers who had come in for the clinics.

We were also told that the water pump for the camp had crapped out earlier in the day due to being overloaded by the transformer problems. Rather than have us go without running water, Marcello asked the local fire department to come in and pump our water tanks full again. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where they sourced their water from, so it was likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria. We had to therefore be extra careful only to drink from bottled water.

After the meeting, we asked for help in counting pills. This, we thought, would be a long and arduous process in which our bulk medicines would be divided into dosage amounts, (usually a month’s supply, or however much it usually took to knock out whatever it was being prescribed for), pre-bagged and labeled in little zip-lock baggies. However, while it was a long process, we had nearly the entire camp volunteer to help, so the work went much much faster. It was still terribly hot and most of us were living for the shower we knew we’d be having after retiring for the evening.

While working, we left aside a third of the meds to take with us to El Salvador the following week. The vast majority of what we brought would be used in Guatemala, though, as we would have more docs available for the clinics there.

We wrapped up our counting near 11 p and I headed up the hill for my shower. Only, I walked into the shower-house to discover there was no water. Not even a trickle. The tanks were empty. I nearly broke down crying at the idea of having to go to bed sweaty and nasty from my day.  Then, upon returning to the bunk-house, I learned that due to the ongoing transformer problems, we were only allowed to use one air-conditioner per bunk-house. And it wasn’t the one nearest my bed.  (I know what you’re thinking: Poor Gringo. He’s visiting a country where many people have no running water let alone air-conditioners of any kind and he’s whining about only having ONE. Believe me, I’m just as disgusted with myself over this as you are. My only excuse is that it was still early in the trip and certain realities about the situation had not quite hit home yet.)

I climbed into my bunk only to find it gritty. My duffle bag had been sitting on the concrete floor all day and had picked up a lot of the dust that had been tracked in from outside. Now I was doubly filthy and still hot. I kept trying to tell myself that I hadn’t come here for comfort and that maybe there would be water in the morning, but it didn’t help much. Eventually, the air did cool off in the bunk house, though, and I fell asleep.

 

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