Refuge International

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


Laurel Zeller with other nursesI was privileged this past November to travel to Guatemala with an organization called Refuge International. I was part of a minor surgery team that returns to the mountainous town of Chocola three times a year at the invitation of local doctor Sergio Castillo. Knowing that the surgery team is coming, Dr Castillo gathers up patients who appear in need of surgical intervention and arranges for them to return at the designated time.

Cruz and his brother with medical staffCruz and his brother with medical staffCruz Ajqui Ixquiactep, a shy, quiet 27-year-old from Xojola (pronounced “show-ho-la”), came to the Chocolá clinic during our July mission trip for a consult on a possible small hydrocele. During the exam, however, Refuge International volunteer Dr. Jason Murry noted the presence of a large mass on Cruz’s right thigh (and no hydrocele issues).

Cruz told Dr. Murry that the “bump” had been there for a few months and caused him pain and irritation. Dr. Murry noted that the mass was likely benign, but given the size and location, said it would best be removed by an orthopedic surgeon—one of whom would be arriving with our next mission trip in San Raymundo just two weeks later.

Abner Cordova and his familyRefuge 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.

GregorioI 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.

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.

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.

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.