Dr. Sieve’s Medical Missions Trip to Guatemala
Last month I traveled to the town of Joyabaj, Guatemala for a medical mission trip to serve the native Maya of the Quiché area. With six other doctors and an entire team of missionaries from the non profit Catholic mission group named Sending out Servants, we set up a clinic to provide surgical screenings and primary care optometry to over 600 individuals. From the screenings, we sent 68 people to undergo cataract surgery to restore their sight, and approximately 30 people for pterygia removal. These pterygia are small growths on the surface of the eye that cause significant dry eye, burning, and discomfort as they disrupt the ocular surface. We helped both young and old, ranging from as young as 11 months to the oldest being 101 years.
Each morning we were routinely greeted by patients who slept outside on the front steps of the clinic in order to be seen first. The clinic was open for nine to ten hours a day with short breaks for lunch. One of the largest obstacles of the clinic was the language barrier. Many patients only spoke their native Quiché language, but thanks to a local group of volunteers serving as translators we were still able to communicate effectively. Unfortunately very few of the translators spoke English, creating a unique combination of optometric and linguistic exhaustion at the end of each day.
A normal day was filled with both highs and lows as patients progressed through the clinic. I experienced some of the most genuine joy and happiness from a variety of patients who, with the right prescription lenses, could accomplish anything. One particular patient that stands out was a teenage girl having difficulty seeing the board at school. After determining her prescription, I sent her to the next station where another missionary fit her in a pair of glasses and evaluated her vision. She was ecstatic after putting on glasses for the first time. I don’t know if I have ever had a patient so happy to experience an improvement in their vision. She did not have an extreme or unusual prescription, but I would like to think that she became aware that her vision was no longer going to hold her back in her school, her career, or her life.
Conversely, there was a draining feeling of only being able to provide limited assistance. Many patients arrived with lifelong vision limitations. Scars that will never heal, eyes that never developed properly, vision that can never be restored no matter the procedure, the medicine, or the glasses prescription. In one particular patient encounter, a man brought in his elderly father who developed a large, abnormal growth taking over the front of his eye. The growth was so large it protruded outside of his eyelid. Unfortunately this man was not even capable of closing his eye for relief. The soft tumor-like tissue had also become infected. I treated the infection, but it is unlikely his eye will ever see again, and may never be comfortable either. We made a referral to a surgeon in Antigua who could potentially remove the growth, but he may never make it to the appointment due to the long distance and difficult traveling conditions. Patient encounters like this made me truly appreciate our access to both skilled doctors and preventative care. Early detection and management may have saved this man’s vision and eye health.
While some of the patients were unable to be helped, those receiving cataract surgery the following week will see for the first time in many years. These individuals may be able to see their grandchildren for the first time. Others won’t have to rely on an escort guiding them from one place to the next. I cannot imagine the euphoria of someone experiencing their vision again after years of darkness, shapes, and shadows. The patients having their pterygia removed will finally get some relief from the relentless irritation and discomfort of their eyes.
During my time in Guatemala, I realized we will always be limited in what we can do. I realized there are ways we can impact each other that can change a life without us ever knowing. I realized the importance of presence. Of just sitting and listening and being there for someone. Of sharing a package of dried mangos with a little girl while her mom is waiting for her eyes to dilate. I realized that anything I may have done for these people, they did more for me. By allowing me to serve them, I feel my ceiling for empathy is elevated. After being immersed in their pain and fatigue, their hope and their happiness, I understand the Maya helped me to become a more experienced optometrist and a more compassionate person. If you are able to, please consider donating to Sending Out Servants, the organization that makes all of this work possible. Over 95% of all donations directly benefit the Mayan communities. A link to their website is located at www.sendingoutservants.org
Lawrence Sieve, OD