Faith in Practice brings hope to those in need in Guatemala
ANTIGUA, Guatemala – In this small city encircled by volcanoes, everyone greets the Rev. Linda McCarty just as “Linda.”
But greetings turn to hugs when McCarty enters Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro hospital, home to Faith in Practice, the organization and medical mission she runs.
Many people in the lobby, several with limbs in casts or walking with crutches, approached her to show how well they were doing. McCarty answered in perfect, fast Spanish, “¡Qué gusto verte tan bien; qué milagro!” (How wonderful you look; what a miracle!”)
The “miracles,” as McCarty likes to call them, are plenty for the Faith in Practice ecumenical Christian medical missions. For more than 20 years, this nonprofit headquartered in Houston has been running health programs to help the needy in Guatemala, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Every year, Faith in Practice organizes trips of hundreds of doctors, nurses and health care providers from Houston and other parts of the United States. They volunteer in the Central American country, paying on their own for flights and expenses.
They do short-term surgical, medical, dental and educational missions throughout the year to guarantee continuous care for local people, McCarty said.
The organization was founded after Dr. Todd Collier went to study Spanish in Guatemala in 1991 and met Franciscan friar Guillermo Bonilla, who was leading local efforts to provide medical services to the poor. Collier returned to Houston and enlisted Joe and Vera Wiatt, a Houston couple who sold their hardware store to devote themselves full time to build Faith in Practice. The three organized the first surgical tour of nine volunteers to Antigua in 1993 with the help of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church and Memorial Hermann Hospital System in Houston.
They turned the leadership of the organization over to McCarty in 2007.
At the hospital in Antigua, Faith in Practice occupies about a quarter of the building, with a fully equipped medical clinic and surgery rooms built and financed by the organization.
On a recent day, three medical teams of doctors from Texas were simultaneously performing orthopedic surgeries. “This is my team,” proudly said Dr. Jay Pond, one of the leaders of that week’s orthopedic mission, which included seven surgeons as well as anesthetists, nurses, physical therapists – more than 40 specialists in total.
Although in his regular practice in Arlington, Pond normally does only about four surgeries per week, he performed 16 orthopedic operations in four days during this mission. This was his fifth mission since joining Faith in Practice four years ago.
The mission conducted 76 surgeries on the recent trip, including hip and knee replacements, orthopedic reconstructions and amputations.
Pond said he does charity work in Texas, but he feels his volunteerism in Guatemala has a greater impact on people. “Even the uninsured and underinsured at home have so much more than what people down here have,” he said.
Most of the surgeries the medical practitioners do are life-changing for patients. In one operating room, surgeons were reconstructing the foot of a woman who has been painfully walking on her ankle bone for eight years after her foot turned to one side as a result of a fracture.
People in Guatemala, particularly indigenous populations that account for almost half of the country’s inhabitants, have little access to health services, if any. The government spends only 2 percent of its gross domestic product on health programs.
Comparatively, the African country of Kenya spends 4 percent of its GDP, according to the latest available data from the World Health Organization from 2014.
Many of the surgery patients are referred to the hospital by Faith in Practice mobile clinics in rural, indigenous areas. That was the case of 1-year-old Victor Hernandez Sica, who was born with a malformation in his right hand and was being evaluated for reconstructive surgery.
“I am so happy that they are going to fix my son’s hand,” said Juana Sica in K’iche’, her Mayan language, while holding the little boy at the Casa de Fe, a Faith in Practice home near the hospital to host poor patients like Victor and their families when they go to Antigua to receive treatment.
On average, Faith in Practice sees about 25,000 patients a year and performs between 2,600 and 2,800 surgeries.
“What we do here makes a world of difference for them,” said Dr. Evan Pivalizza, an anesthesiologist and professor with the UT Health system in Houston.
Many of the doctors say that although they volunteer back home, their missions are life-changing experiences, not only for patients but also for themselves.
The patients “are so grateful and so appreciative of what we do that it in turns makes us feel that we are truly making a difference. You realize that you are receiving as much as you are giving,” Pivalizza said.
Jeff Early, director of core infrastructure service at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, serves as a translator in several missions every year. “This is Evelin!” he said, excitedly showing photos on his cellphone of a patient who visited early that morning. She traveled more than two hours to Antigua to thank some of the team members who had also been there in May, when one of her legs was amputated to save her life from a growing cancerous tumor.
Dr. Jack Dawson, the surgeon who operated on Evelin, wasn’t there this time. “We Facetimed with (him) saying hello and thank you,” McCarty said.
Many Guatemalans who have been Faith in Practice’s patients become volunteers themselves, like Floridana Quintanilla and Noel Pérez, who were having a friendly discussion in the hospital lobby about how many hundreds of patients each one had helped to get medical services this year. They are coordinators for different areas of Guatemala and part of a network of around 900 local volunteers.
McCarty said that many volunteers see their service as a Christian calling, but she emphasized that people don’t have to practice a religion to be part of the missions.
Dr. Cary Moorhead, anear, nose and throat specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital, leads a surgical team each year. He discovered that “while ministering to the poor of Guatemala, they, in turn, minister to us.”
Many of the volunteers, Moorhead added, find that their missions to Guatemala become a “time to refuel, reset our priorities, and see ourselves as part of a larger community and a larger plan.”
That perspective is what has made Faith in Practice a way of living for Dr. Philip Johnson III, a chronic conditions specialist from Houston, and his wife, Linda Johnson. They go on missions twice a year.
“The exchange with these people … ” he exclaimed.
“I always come back refreshed about being a physician, about taking care of people, about being part of this world.”
Tallet and De Jesús were 2017 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation.