The San Raymundo municipality is located in the highlands, one hour northwest of Guatemala City. Our groups of volunteers—physicians, nurse practioners, dentists, surgeons, nurses, translators, pharmacy staff, construction workers and other ancillary personnel—operate a week-long clinic in a free-standing hospital in an area called Llano de la Virgen.
In the fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 storm, dropped a record 75 inches of rain in the span of 6 days over much of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. The storm, the second deadliest hurricane to ever hit the Atlantic, caused catastrophic flooding throughout the region. In Guatemala, hundreds were killed or missing and nearly a million left homeless, their entire world swept away by wind, water or mudslides. Dr. Tim Trone was in the San Raymundo area shortly after Hurricane Mitch and quickly realized the overwhelming needs there. His passion to help the residents of San Raymundo caught on back here at home and the First Baptist Church of Texarkana raised the funds to construct a hospital which opened in 2000. A committee of Guatemalans manage the hospital, facilitating visiting teams from the United States to serve and treat the people there.
Since 2003, when Refuge International teams first began making mission trips to this village, our groups have performed more than 3,000 medical procedures here. Each year, teams of 50 mission trip volunteers conduct three to four clinics in San Raymundo. Patients travel from all over the country and even Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador to receive life-changing care from the Refuge teams. In October 2015, in addition to performing over 63 surgeries during a 5-day team visit, our physicians were also able to perform two knee replacements. The strength and dedication of our volunteer groups continues to raise the bar of care that we are able to offer to the people of San Raymundo.
Women's Health Medical Mission
Indigenous women constitute Guatemala’s most marginalized group. They rarely participate in community decision-making processes or in the political sphere, and continuously struggle to affirm their rights. Since they are significantly poorer than men and have limited access to education and health services, they have high maternal mortality and malnutrition rates.
Refuge International has become keenly aware of the inequality of indigenous women during the 13 years we have been working in Guatemala. Debra Lehr, a certified midwife and Nurse Practitioner, had traveled many times with Refuge International and had seen first-hand the struggles of Guatemalan women. Dr. Laura Fortner, an OB/GYN, had also witnessed the need of these women. In 2014, these two women, along with the leaders of Refuge International, made a decision to hold a women’s only clinic in Guatemala.
In April 2016, the first-ever Women’s Health Medical Mission was held in San Raymundo, Guatemala. Nineteen participants from all over the United States spent their vacation time, paid their own way, and worked long hours to provide much-needed care to the women of Guatemala.
One group was from Ohio, and included Dr. Laura Fortner, Debra Lehr, FNP, Sarah Manson, RN and Jillian Strouse. Volunteers from Wisconsin included Dr. Julie Schurr, Stephanie Barman, RN, Susan McLeish, RN, Sarah Gisseler, RN, Beth Malcook, and Megan Davis. Others came from California, including Carlos Paz, RN, Rosa Bagley and Jocelyn Mansilla. From Texas, participants included Dr. Ken Eveland, Deborah Bell, FNP, Deborah Gale, RN, and Michelle Solis, RN. These volunteers performed 22 life-changing surgeries and attended to more than 150 women in the clinic.
Refuge International hopes to continue holding medical missions directed at providing care to the poorest of the poor. There are 11 medical mission teams scheduled to work in Guatemala this year, and one of those will be solely for the care of women.
Volunteer Scot Leatherwood and the Bomberos of San Raymundo
In 2012, I was introduced to Refuge International by Joy Gring. Little did I know how much my perspective on life would change after that. I went on my first trip to San Raymundo, Guatemala in August 2012. After that first trip, you could say I was “hooked” on working in San Raymundo. Although Guatemala wasn’t my first medical mission trip, it would soon become part of me. After that first trip, I knew that I would be headed back to Guatemala soon. I have now been on every trip to San Raymundo since the first one in August 2012.
In March 2015, I was introduced to the Bomberos of San Raymundo. As I am a Paramedic, it was only natural that I start a relationship with them also. I have been an EMS educator for over 20 years, but I was extremely nervous in meeting the Bomberos for the first time. I had no idea what to expect from them or what their training was. As they walked up to the clinic the first time, I was blown away, not only because of how sharp they looked, but you could see the pride they had in their service and the community they serve. You don’t even see that in a lot of EMS Services in the USA. I knew then that this was going to be an amazing meeting.
We began by getting to know each other and me learning about the training levels that they have in Guatemala. I found out quickly, that I was probably going to learn a lot more from them than they would from me. Once introductions were made, I asked about the type of equipment and supplies they had, it was at that point, I found out that they literally have nothing. Their Ambulance is a van that they converted (the van was donated by Refuge International) and they had a cot. That was it. They had nothing else to work with. So now comes the big issue: how do I help them with training when they have nothing? You go back to basics and what EMS was formed with—ingenuity and know how.
We took cardboard boxes and made splints and cervical collars, sheets and pillowcases for bandages. We trained on trauma, which is what they treat the most in their area. I truly felt as though I stepped back in time 20 years when I started in EMS. Only difference is, the Bomberos had the training and knowledge for so much more. The potential of what they could accomplish was only limited by their supplies. Nancy Neuman (San Raymundo Mission Trip Leader) and I promised them that not only would I continue training with them, but that we would work on getting them supplies that were very much needed.
In August, I traveled back to San Raymundo, this time with a lot of extra supplies and equipment with me. When the Bomberos arrived, it was like Christmas morning. Equipment that they would never be able to obtain was sitting in front of them. Cardiac monitors, portable suction, bandages, intubation equipment, training DVD’s in Spanish, and a laptop computer to use for the training. I’m really not sure who was more excited, them or me. We spent the rest of the day training on the new equipment. It was a great day of training for them and me.
A couple days later, I was given a huge surprise and honor. The Bomberos came back out to the clinic, made me an official member of their service team, and presented me with a uniform and a certificate of appreciation. I will gladly admit that I was so honored and touched that I shed a few tears. This was a big deal for me. I am looking forward to a continued partnership with the Bomberos, knowing that I have the support of not only Refuge International, but of EMS services around North America.