Refuge International

Improving lives through healthcare, nutrition, clean water, and education.

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With every trip, we are humbled by the strength and resilience commonly found in the people of Guatemala. In turn, it fuels our drive to continue our mission to improve the living conditions in these remote areas.

It can be said that the act of giving often benefits the giver just as much as the recipient, and sometimes even more so. Time after time, Refuge International volunteers have returned home forever changed by the people they have helped. Here are just a few of our stories.

Christina Kinder and Anna Katherine Cates with a box of suppliesChristina: During the spring break of 2015, I had the opportunity to travel with my parents through Refuge International to the clinic in Chocola, Guatemala. It was easily my most life-changing experience. I have been very interested in pursuing a career in medicine for as long as I can remember, and my parents believed that this would be a great chance to expose me to everything medicine had to offer. The people that participated in the Refuge International program came from diverse backgrounds, and we all joined together to serve the Guatemalan people. The strength of the Guatemalan people was so impressive and inspiring. They would travel three hours by foot to receive treatment, and travel home three hours by foot the day after surgery. I knew I needed to help.

When I came home, I immediately began planning for a trip back. Along with my desire to go back, I wanted to do whatever I could to provide help. My school has always taught us to serve others, and that’s what I planned to do. I brought up the idea of sending medical supplies to Anna Katherine during the summer of 2015, and we both agreed to reach out to our local hospitals and school for help. From connections within our community, we gathered and shipped around 2,000 items to the Refuge International headquarters in hope that they would provide relief.

Anna Katherine: Christina approached me in the summer of 2015 after she returned from her trip to Chocola. She knew that I shared her passion for medicine and asked for help organizing a project to assist Refuge International. After hearing the personal stories of the resilient Guatemalan patients, I knew that there was no other organization more deserving of our efforts.

Neither one of us had ever organized a service project, so we spent most of our time brainstorming ideas to collect donations. After reaching out to our school, we were introduced to a local retired cardiologist who served as our mentor and directed us to professionals who have the ability to locate the sterile supplies we needed.

We spent weeks reaching out to medical centers and suppliers, explaining the unique mission of Refuge International and their specific needs. Executives at Floyd Medical Center generously agreed to donate various supplies to be shipped to Refuge International headquarters. This past winter, Christina and I had finally collected enough supplies and together we packaged and shipped close to 2,000 items to Refuge International coordinators.

Through gracious donations, we were able to assemble this first shipment, and we plan to continue to collect and ship supplies to Refuge International in the future. It has been an honor to work with this worthy organization with whom we share the same passion for service and medical relief.

Sincerely,
Christina Kinder
Anna Katherine Cates

Gregorio2I met Gregorio during the summer of 2011. I was serving as a proselyting missionary in Chinique, Quiche. When I met Gregorio, he was living in a house made of cardboard. The walls and ceiling were made of cardboard boxes that had been unfolded, supported by some sort of bamboo poles in the corners. As you can imagine, this did not keep out the torrential Guatemalan rain. 

Five years earlier, at the age of 41, Gregorio was injured in a fall down a ravine and since that time he had been unable to work. His wife chopped firewood and carried it on her back to earn money and support themselves. One or two years after I met Gregorio, his wife passed away. When I asked him if he had seen a doctor, he said that he had already had two operations on each of his knees in Guatemalan hospitals, but his condition did not improve. He walked with difficulty, and was plagued with constant pain that kept him awake most nights.

 

When I finished my mission and returned to the U.S., I could not forget about Gregorio. His condition bothered me. It was hard to enjoy a comfortable bed, good food, and good health when I thought about how hard Gregorio's life was. I felt guilty that I was never able to help him get better.

Almost 7 years later, in January 2018, I started looking online to see if there were any volunteer groups from the U.S. that performed orthopedic surgeries in Guatemala. I was elated when I found Refuge International! I hoped that they would be able to help Gregorio. Contacting Gregorio was tricky as he does not have a cellphone or email account, but with the help of missionaries in Chinique I was able to make contact with Gregorio and ask if he would be interested in seeing an orthopedic surgeon in San Raymundo (where Refuge International had an upcoming orthopedic medical mission team scheduled). When he said he was interested, my parents contacted a good family friend from Chichicastenango. They arranged for Gregorio to get x-rays in Quiche, and for his transportation to San Raymundo. I also signed-up to be a Refuge International volunteer that week.  Gregorio1

Dr. Parker, the lead orthopedic surgeon, and the entire team worked a miracle on Gregorio's left leg! After the surgery, I asked Gregorio if he had ever thought he might be able to walk without crutches again. He told me that had never crossed his mind. He is extremely grateful for what Dr. Parker, his team, and Refuge International did for him, and he is hopeful that the surgeons in Antigua will be able to operate on his right knee. Nothing I can say would be sufficient to thank Refuge International, Dr. Parker and the entire team. Gregorio has lived with pain and disability for 12 years, but he now lives with hope. You have done more than given him a new knee. You haven given him new life.

For me personally, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Best wishes,

John Pettit

Stephen Mahoney with patientAs a college freshman, I was still pretty clueless about where life would lead me. The guiding force that influenced me towards a career in health care came through my medical mission trips with Refuge International. As an undergrad, I received invaluable experience by participating directly in patient care on my trips to Guatemala. I learned to take blood pressures, start IV’s, and eventually to scrub in and assist with surgery.

I have found working in the operating room exceedingly rewarding, and this led me to consider a career as a surgeon. However, my decision to become a doctor did not come solely from my operating room experience but from my exposure to human suffering, the potential of its relief, and the gratitude expressed by the people who I am given the chance to help. I have little doubt that I am where I am today, a second year medical student at UT Southwestern, because of the influence Refuge has had on my life.

“One time we had to go buy a hacksaw to do an amputation.”

Dr. Eveland with a little girlThis is the start of just one of innumerable stories Dr. Ken Eveland, one of our most committed volunteers, loves to share. He goes on to explain that a Guatemalan man had broken his tibia (shin bone) several years earlier, and it had never healed properly. His leg suffered chronic infection, and although the man had been to the Guatemalan National government hospital time and time again to have a much-needed amputation, the surgery was repeatedly postponed by the hospital system. The man showed up at our San Raymundo clinic one day, and by the next, Dr. Eveland and Dr. Jordan Stanley were able to amputate the bad leg.

Refuge then arranged for the man to have a prosthetic, and he is able to walk and work once again. Dr. Eveland, a retired general surgeon who explains he’s “no good at just doing nothing,” has been on 33 mission trips with Refuge International and is very active in the administrative activities. Dr. Eveland made his first trip with Refuge in 2006 and since then “God has got Guatemala etched on my heart.” Once you get Dr. E. going, it’s hard to get him to stop talking about the coffee plantations and volcanoes, or the people and their histories and lives.

Katarina with her wooden prosthesisRefuge International volunteers met Katarina for the first time at the Chocolá clinic in 2015. After standing in a long line of patients waiting her turn to see the doctor, Katarina limped to our exam table and lifted her skirt to reveal a beautifully carved wooden leg, extremely worn and cracked from years of use. When Katarina was a young teen, she was in a car accident and subsequently lost her leg to gangrene. Now in her late 20s, her homemade leg had become extremely painful to use due to its significant weight and repairs that were made with wires and metal plates, which consequently rubbed on her leg stump. In order to seat her leg into the wooden prosthetic, Katarina used a belt, wrapped tightly around the stump, then fed through a hole drilled into the wood. She pulled for all she was worth to fit her stump into the socket.

Katarina with her new legThrough sheer courage and tenacity to seek a better way of life, Katarina left her very remote village alone and made her way to the Refuge clinic. Katarina believed if she could get a new prosthetic leg, not only would she be able to work, she might even have hopes of marrying one day. Typically, a prosthetic leg with an articulating knee costs $7,000-$10,000, an unattainable amount to someone like Katarina. However, Refuge International volunteers decided to contacted Transitions, a non-profit organization in Guatemala, and found that a prosthesis could be purchased for Katarina for just $2,086. Refuge volunteers immediately created a GoFundMe campaign and in just 13 days, 23 generous individuals contributed the full amount. Refuge is in the process of getting Katarina her new prosthetic leg, and we are so thankful to our community for giving Katarina a fresh start and the opportunity to build a whole new life!

ElenaIn September 2014, 6-year-old Elena Cocom walked into our clinic in Chocolá with a mass the size of a baseball above her right eye. Six months prior, Elena’s father, Domingo, discovered a shallow scrape on his daughter's forehead and dismissed it as a typical wound for a normal, active girl. Their village doctor prescribed mild pain medicine and believed it was an infection that would eventually heal. Over the course of two months, Elena’s scrape grew into a rigid mass that began encroaching on her eyesight and Domingo knew it was time to seek out another medical evaluation for Elena. Domingo, who speaks very little Spanish, had heard of the work Dr. Castillo and Refuge were doing in Chocolá and the family traveled two hours by foot from their rural village to reach the clinic.

Elena's surgeryNervously clenching her father’s hand, Elena allowed Deborah Bell and Dr. Eveland (Dr. E) to examine her eye. At first glance, knowing fungus-related tropical diseases are extremely common in Guatemala, Deborah and Dr. E thought this indeed might be an infection. However, when Dr. E performed surgery to remove the mass he discovered it was not an infection but rather a solid tumor. The team also found several growths on the lymph nodes in her neck. Elena was suffering from a malignant growth that was spreading cancer through her body. Dr. E extracted samples from the mass so that a pathologist could determine the type of cancer they were dealing with. The team knew Elena would need to be treated at the National Children’s Hospital in Guatemala but having Dr. Castillo and the clinic closer to Domingo and Elena’s village meant that our team could follow the case and help ensure Elena received the care she needed. Elena went to the National Hospital for several treatments but, tragically, it was not enough. She has since passed away despite her brave fight.

Angel Hernandez-TorresDespite prior surgical procedures, Angel Hernandez-Torres had two large cysts on his legs that had grown back for a third time. So once again, Angel went to his local hospital to have them removed. He handed the clerk his money, took a seat in the waiting room and waited. And waited some more. He waited until he was told to go home; no money was returned and no operation was performed. That's how it sometimes goes in a national system that is overburdened and under-funded.

Angel kissing one of his care providersSeveral months later, still needing medical care, Angel showed up at our clinic in San Raymundo with hopes to be evaluated by one of our doctors. In fact, our team was able to remove the cysts that same day, and by that evening, Angel was recovering nicely from surgery. Throughout the day, Angel entertained team members and his translators with jokes and funny stories. He hugged his doctors during consults and kissed nurses on the cheek. Normally, you might expect to see someone become angry and bitter due to a system that had let him down time and time again. Instead, Angel was full of love and more than happy to “lift up” those that were here from another country to bring him the relief he so desperately needed.

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Refuge International met Abner Cordova and his family during a mission trip in San Raymundo, Guatemala in February, 2018. The Cordovas live in the municipality of Baja Verapaz, a rural area approximately 2 hours from San Raymundo, where most families (including the Cordovas) farm vegetables and grains.

The Cordovas told us that in January 2017, Abner began experiencing significant leg pain when walking, running and playing. Doctors at the national hospital discovered that Abner had osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, which resulted in the amputation of his left leg near the hip. Today, Abner continues oral chemotherapy treatments and his current scans are clear of the cancer.

 Prior to his diagnosis and amputation, Abner loved working with his father in the fields and the admiration he has for his parents shines in his eyes. His mother, Rosa, smiled shyly as she shared just how active her son is – showing us videos of Abner playing soccer (on crutches) with his best friend and riding his plastic tri-bike. When we asked Abner what his favorite subject is in school, a proud smile quickly spread across his face and he replied “physical activity”.

test%2F1520366286017-IMG-20180222-WA0019.jpgWhile Abner’s operations were performed free of charge at the national children’s hospital, as part of the country’s healthcare system, his oral chemotherapy and other medications cost the family hundreds of dollars each month, a stark reality for a family that resides in a region where most live on less than $5 per day. Providing their son with a prosthetic leg was financially impossible for the Cordovas. 

Refuge International reached out to Transitions Foundation, a non-profit organization in Antigua whose mission is to mobilize people with disabilities, and we learned the cost to provide Abner with a prosthetic leg would be $4,447 USD 

Abner

(Transitions offered to contribute additional funds to build the prosthetic). In contrast, the type of prosthetic limb that Abner needed would have actually cost several thousand dollars more in the States.

Abner y papasThanks to the generosity of many in the Refuge community of supporters, we were able to give this clever, energetic little boy a new lease on life! The smile on Abner's face (and those of his parents) as he once again walked on two legs is one of the reasons we are here – to provide hope and resources to those that otherwise would have to do without.