Two years ago last February, my home congregation, the West Islip Church of Christ on Long Island, New York, sent me and three other members on a sort of "fact-finding" mission with HTI's surgical team to Chocola, Guatemala. I have just returned from my fourth trip with HTI.
I am not a medical person and after having been in the group sent to set up the new clinic in Montellano, I proudly call myself a "Guatemala Grunt". I told Marie Agee after the September run that, since my time and my funds are my own, I would and possibly could be available anytime she needed someone with my limited but enthusiastic skills. The November eye clinic was that time.
This was my first eye clinic. HTI did not have its full complement of personnel for this trip but Marie and Dr. Patterson decided it could happen anyway.Dr. Larry Patterson and his team of six ( which included his delightful eleven year old daughter Mary) would do what he has done several times before. Seven Americans were ready to go and Dr. Sergio was asked to serve as Chaplain at the last minute.
I ended up being the American translator, which was pretty amazing considering my limited Spanish language skills. I told a patient to "open her children" (instead of eyes). We both laughed at that one. I also groped for words trying to explain a concept to Juan before I remembered that Juan spoke English very well. I thought I would have very little to do, but God did give me a task to perform after all.
Devotions at night were especially meaningful to me. Sergio, with a great deal of care and planning, called in all of his Guatemalan staff, Maruka, Rigo, Luca, Glinda, Alex, Alejandra, Hector, etc. and the devotionals were conducted in Spanish and English. One evening we sang "This is the Day that the Lord has made" in Spanish, English and Quiche. He ended each evening by sharing some of the responses from patients who could now see, and in both languages we prayed for our work and the Glory of God.
This mission in tone and personal effort was quite different from my previous experiences which had been with the surgical teams. No lives were in possible jeopardy with or without the surgery. There was no blood, no excessive pain, but what we saw profoundly affected all of us. I would like to share two of my observations.
In the Gyn/General Surgery clinics, patients are pre-screened and given appointments. They know for a certainty that their hernias and hysterectomies will be taken care of. In this case, however, people line up at 5:00 each evening for possible surgery the next day. They do not know until their eyes have been checked and evaluated whether or not they can be helped. In more than half of the cases, they have to be told that nothing can be done; they are indeed blind or we do not have the technology available. This is especially heartbreaking.
On the other hand, the gratification and joy you experience with them the next day when the eye patch comes off and they are able to see for the first time in years is humbling. They are able to see three fingers from across the room, to read the number above the bed opposite theirs. There was one elderly lady who showed no reaction because she was in shock. She then proceeded to point out all the things she could now see, praising and thanking God, the Doctor and all of us standing there. There was the young mother of seven who saw the face of her youngest, four month old Luis, for the first time; she sat quietly, tears streaming down her face.
The work wasn't hard and there was plenty of free time, but I will be forever grateful to have been a part of this experience.