Doctors and laity treat 30K in Guatemala
By Ronnie Crocker
The doctors and lay persons who make the weeklong trips to Guatemala with Faith In Practice – journeying by bus into remote villages, seeing patients in temporary clinics set up in schools or churches – embody Jesus’ admonition that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
But to hear them tell it, the volunteers receive plenty of blessings in return.
“It very much recentered me as a physician,” said John Riggs, an obstetrician and gynecologist who attends Bellaire United Methodist Church, Houston and has made five trips to Guatemala with Faith In Practice. His most recent visit was in July.
The Houston-based, multidenominational nonprofit has focused on Guatemala since its founding 2 ½ decades ago. Today it sponsors roughly 1,500 U.S. and 1,000 Guatemalan volunteers each year as it provides care to an estimated 30,000 people annually. Teams that once brought in their own supplies now have access to a warehouse in a country that is operated by Faith In Practice.
“It’s like a small healthcare system,” said Rev. Linda McCarty, who led the organization from 2007 until earlier this month.
Riggs, 63, had heard about the organization over the years from friends, including one whose experience was so profound that he now lives part-time in Antigua, Guatemala. Once his three sons were grown and established, Riggs decided to make the trek himself.
“I had been thinking about doing this sort of thing for years,” he said.
A typical trip begins with a Saturday morning flight to Guatemala City, then a bus ride to Antigua. Groups of 40 to 60 volunteers work with team members on-site, going over logistics while also sharing meals and devotionals and getting to know one another. Meaningful relationships evolve quickly, said Riggs.
“The people who participate on the teams have different backgrounds, different faith backgrounds or maybe no faith background at all,” he said.
The U.S. entourage includes doctors representing a range of specialties, from internal medicine to pediatrics to dermatology. There are nurses, clergy members and physical therapists who work with Guatemalans using canes or wheelchairs. Blood pressure is a common issue.
After a Sunday morning worship service, the group leaves with a bus driver and a security detail for the first of two villages where they will set up for a couple of days. They convert school rooms for specific needs and open a makeshift pharmacy. Riggs has access to an ultrasound machine, but that’s about it for technology.
Lacking the other kinds of testing and data he has back home, he relies on traditional diagnostics and the power of observation.
“If we want to know what’s going on with a patient, we have to sit down with them and really listen to them,” said Riggs, noting that compassion and empathy are vital for a physician in this type of environment. “I have to rely on connecting with the patients and understanding what’s going on with them.”
The people make a profound impact as well. Riggs’ patients in Guatemala are poor, but he finds them to be people of deep faith and spirituality.
“That has reawakened a lot of fundamental concepts of my own identity,” he said.
McCarty, 60, can relate.
In 2001, she left a career as an attorney, representing defendants in medical-malpractice cases, to enroll in divinity school in Chicago. She went to Guatemala a few months before the first semester, to learn Spanish, and was immediately taken with the people, their spirit, and their spirituality.
She made her first trip with Faith In Practice in May 2003, serving as a translator and a pastor. Because she was still in seminary, she had to reschedule her finals. She also met the organization’s founders, stayed in touch with them over the years and led several trips.
In 2007, the founders asked her to move to Houston and serve as CEO during a period of rapid growth for Faith In Practice.
McCarty oversaw the expansion of the budget to $5 million, from $1.6 million. Once partnerships and in-kind donations are added, the budget is more like $20 million, McCarty said. For example, the organization has contracts to purchase surgical items at cost.
There was two paid staff in Guatemala and just five or six in Houston when McCarty arrived. Today, more than 60 work for the organization, coordinating programs and handling supply chain and inventory. A network of volunteers in Guatemala identifies people in need of care and lines up visits for the medical teams.
Faith In Practice also expanded the concept of integrated care to include providing pre-op testing, transporting patients to and from surgery, and finding temporary housing for their families. The organization networks with independent clinics in Guatemala to ensure patients receive appropriate follow-up care.
The U.S. teams used to travel from January through May, but they now make trips throughout the year. McCarty remembers when a group of United Methodists from Sugar Land packed their own Ibuprofen to carry on the plane. The warehouse handles all that now.
Faith In Practice maintained the highest rating from Charity Navigator for 17 consecutive years, McCarty said, even as the scope of its mission grew dramatically. The group even sponsors scholarships for the children of its Guatemalan volunteers.
“We don’t want to drop in and drop out,” McCarty said. “We want to journey with them step by step.”
“It’s an ongoing, daily operation.”
But again, the blessings flow in each direction.
“We find wholeness,” said McCarty.
That starts with the Guatemalan people themselves. She noticed it on her first trip, before she embarked on her new life of ministry, and her appreciation and admiration have grown stronger over the years.
“They seem to live closer to God than the rest of us seem to be able to do,” she said.
McCarty said the patients helped by Faith In Practice are materially poor in a way that is hard for Americans to fathom. They live in a country where violence and corruption can seem overwhelming. Yet that seems to have forged a stronger faith, she said.
“They are living on the edge every day,” she said. “They live in that space of trust and reliance every day, in a way that we don’t have to.”
Their example provided a blessing of its own when McCarty was diagnosed with cancer shortly after arriving in Houston to lead Faith In Practice.
“I had to let go and trust in a way I’d never known,” she said.
She also draws inspiration from the way Guatemalans speak about their faith so openly. It blends seamlessly into all aspects of their lives. It’s part of their vernacular, she said.
“There’s something very honest,” McCarty said of her experiences. “Very humble and healing.”
As her tenure at Faith In Practice drew to a close, McCarty described it as a task that required all her strength for 15 years.
But, she added, “It also gave me my life.”