My name is Rachel Radke, and I am a Junior Psychology major on the Pre-Medical track at Baylor University located in Waco, Texas. This past May, I had the opportunity to take a class entitled Poverty & Health that included a ten-day medical mission trip to Guatemala City. It is with immense gratitude that I recount this transformative experience. It was made possible for myself, along with ten other students and two professors, to partake in only with the generous resources supplied by Dustin’s Dream – including financial scholarships, medical supplies, facilitates and spiritual support.
The main clinic was mere blocks away from the gated walls of the seminary. We’d pile into large white passenger vans with blacked-out windows and medical supplies. The streets we passed consisted of scrap metal shanties, starving dogs and people of all ages – faces smudged with dirt, eyes depressed in deep thought, movements slow with rigidity and mechanical repetition, clothing tattered and mismatched. Upon arrival, the gates to enter suddenly emerged indiscriminately from the flat affect of colorful, vertical structures lining the streets. We all crowded around the staff members in the waiting room, impressed by the quality of the building. All of the walls were cinderblock, yet they were painted in two-toned blues, oranges and pinks. It is three stories, the first of which contained typical waiting-room chairs aligned in neat rows as well as several exam rooms for the doctors. The second floor contained a pharmacy consisting of shelving units lined with medications in alphabetical order and folding tables supplied with small plastic baggies, labels, sharpies and pill sorters. Additional corners and small areas were utilized as prayer stations where folding chairs were arranged accordingly. Lastly, the third floor consisted of an early childhood development center – complete with toys and colorful murals on the walls.
The first day, I had the opportunity to work in the prayer station which was set up in a small room on the second floor of the clinic. Myself, a translator named Mira and our international host Devin would greet patient after patient, inviting them to sit with us and share any prayer requests that they had. Perhaps the most impactful individual we saw on this particular day was a young woman named Dulce. We had to relocate in order to pray with her because she was in a wheelchair and unable to get up the stairs. We took her outside into the open area between the clinic and the school where the children played. She quickly became vulnerable in sharing her story as to why she was in a wheelchair. She had owned a clothing store that had been extorted. Upon entering, the extortionists open fired. Dulce was pregnant at the time, giving birth prematurely. Her sister was fatally injured as a result of the incident, and on the same day she died – two days after the shooting – Dulce’s newborn baby also passed away. The funeral for both of them was held on Dulce’s older daughter’s birthday. She was forced to confront the intersection of life and death in a most real and tangible way. She exhibited bravery like none other I have ever seen as she detailed her excruciating pain. Lastly, she showed us a video on her phone of her attempting to stand – it was obvious that she had gathered every ounce of strength within her, continuously trying until at last she succeeded.
The following day, the clinic was located off the beaten path in a one-room church. The space itself was somewhat large, and we attempted to divide it into the various stations that we had prepared. The doctors’ rooms were located outside the main building in small Sunday school classrooms. In the morning, I had the opportunity to shadow the Pediatrician we brought with us, Ashleigh. She instructed me to use one of her books to track the children’s growth curves according to their weight. I also gave the patients stickers after their visit with the doctor. Most of the cases consisted of malnourished children who weren’t eating. Some were below the growth curve and very underweight for their age. The typical treatment for such conditions consisted of treating for worms if stomach pain was a complaint and providing vitamins. There were two notable cases I had the opportunity to encounter. The first was a baby who came with a woman who was not the mother and could not answer many questions regarding the child’s care and responsiveness. The baby had a very distinct cough as well as clear difficulty breathing with every breath she took. She was diagnosed with Croup and instructed to go to the hospital immediately. Unfortunately, it was quite apparent that they would have great difficulty arranging a ride to the nearest hospital and locating the child’s mother in order to take her to be treated.
The second impactful case that I witnessed while shadowing was a young boy with spina bifida. He was six years old, had a very large head and clubbed feet. His petite mother struggled under the weight of carrying him because he was unable to walk and completely immobile. I learned that his large head was a result of cerebrospinal fluid buildup due to a blockage at the base of his head caused by his condition. He had come to see the doctor for scabies, and all the other children who came in with the mother had it as well. As he sat in the plastic chair patiently, he would bend over and tickle his little sister, and both children would laugh hysterically. He had the brightest smile and most joy-filled eyes.
The following evening, all of the students got to participate in serving a feeding program offered by one of the local churches. Devin and a translator parked the vans at the main clinic, and we walked through several alleyways to get to the food station set up in the midst of scrap metal homes with fabric hanging as doors. This was by far the most surreal experience I have ever had the opportunity of partaking in. At first, the pastor of the church located amidst the worst poverty imaginable said a prayer and sang songs with the children. A seemingly endless line of children waited, giggling and fidgeting with bowls in their hands. Another nearby alleyway contained a line of homeless men. I was stationed at the beans, where I took the bowls from those waiting and passed them down the line. Many mothers came with several children, asking for six servings. Most of the time, the children’s and young mothers’ bowls were simple, faded plastic dishes, but they were often clean. On the other hand, the homeless adults would either bring dirty throw-away Styrofoam containers or halves of two-liter soda bottles. We waited patiently, the line dwindling, as a few individuals rushed to receive a meal last minute – mostly small children running on bare feet or tired mothers with worry in their eyes.
On Saturday, we went back to the main clinic where they conduct the AWANA program each week – a half-day program in the school that provides activities for children in the surrounding areas. We had planned and prepared our activities in groups of two to three prior to traveling to Guatemala. My partner, Brianna, and I focused on the body systems. In each presentation, we went into the classroom where the children of a particular age were waiting. First, we’d introduce ourselves and explain that we were going to teach the children about the systems of the body. We’d get a child to volunteer to be traced on a sheet of brown packing paper that we had cut. Next, we’d go through each organ of the body, explaining its function and allowing the children to place a construction paper cut-out on the body poster in its proper position. For the circulatory system, we created a relay race that demonstrated the amount of blood pumped through the body every minute. We had two buckets, one filled with water and one empty. The children would line up and each have a turn using a small scoop to transfer water from the full bucket to the empty one. At the end of this activity, we explained how much work your heart is doing each minute all on its own. For the respiratory system, we gave each child a brown paper bag and straw. They were to put the straw inside the bag and hold the top closed. Then, we demonstrated how with each breath that we take, the lungs expand and fill with air – represented by the bag getting larger when air is blown through the straw. Then, they could press the air out of the bag, as if exhaling. Lastly, each of the children got a bag of crackers they could eat. To represent how the digestive system works, we did a demonstration crushing the crackers for mechanical digestion and then pouring a liquid in the baggie to show how chemical digestion further breaks down the food. At the end, a volunteer got to draw a face on the completed person with all the organs placed on the body. Then, this visual was compared to the original child who had volunteered to be traced and hung on the wall of the classroom.
On Sunday afternoon, we went to a cemetery in order to view the dump in Guatemala City from a better vantage point. The cemetery itself consisted of elaborate grave sites that were essentially small decorated rooms in honor of entire families. Those who could not afford this type of grave were buried in what was referred to as lockers. It was a large structure containing rows of narrow slots that were embellished with flowers and notes on the outside of each locker. Apparently, the family members have to pay rent to keep their loved ones there and if they do not, their remains are dumped down the surrounding ravine. From the edge of the cemetery, it overlooked the massive dump in which many locals scavenge to make a living. They are not allowed to live there, but they enter it illegally and stay from sunup to sundown looking for anything that might be of value to sell, eat or build a home out of. Many people die because they rush to the new trucks that come in and are crushed under the tires. Still others are killed in massive garbage slides, and their bodies are often not found. This is the largest dump in Central America. It fills an entire ravine, and when it is compacted enough, dirt covers these areas allowing people to build homes on top of it.
As students, we were challenged to adapt to differing roles in the clinic, relocating physically to various set-ups and interact with different people. This pushed me to consider the multifaceted issues surrounding poverty and health in various contexts. The best moments of the trip were at the prayer station, interacting directly and intimately with the patients. Many would lay down their lives before me and want me to see a way to sort out their brokenness. Though I couldn’t offer all the answers, turning to prayer proved to be enough. Almost every individual I encountered had a relentless love for Christ and trusted His purpose for their life, so it was reassuring to see His faith ignited in their hearts – all I had to do was simply listen and encourage the restoration that is already at work in the communities we were immersed in.
The most unexpected, yet joyful moments, came when interacting with children both in the clinics and during the AWANA program at unstructured times. Whether it be a young child curling up in my lap with intrigue and trust or an older child smiling and teaching me songs with hand motions, children have an innate means of interacting with those who are different from themselves. Although I couldn’t speak their language, they still communicated with me through broad grins and gleeful giggles. It was a relief to see that as an outsider I could be embraced so readily without speaking a single word.
The most important theme that I observed during our time in Guatemala City is that though global issues such as poverty may be broad, intentionality in individuals uniting with one another can result in positive change that is powerful. Impacting even a single person’s life in minuscule or profound ways is worthwhile because each and every person has an inherent value that God deems to be worthy of abandoning all others for. I unexpectedly learned an immense amount from the translators, nurses, volunteers and Dr. Layla who were facilitating the clinics. They all worked tirelessly as we came together to simply observe and enhance the cause they were already pursuing. I appreciated how walls were broken down in pursuit of Christ – whether that meant educating people on basic health practices, sharing intimate stories of personal importance or coming together in prayer to ask God for solutions to problems that are beyond our scope of solving. This idea of making an impact regardless of its scale of magnitude can be translated into addressing any global phenomenon. Even within the multifaceted issue of poverty, one can focus on many different aspects of importance, but it only matters most that you distinguish one that you feel as though you can passionately pursue.