September 5, 2019

Guatemala Medical Mission

By Dr. John Parker

In December 2018, Puget Sound ENT’s own Dr. John Parker traveled on a medical mission trip to San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. For nearly 10 days, the team of physicians, nursing staff and audiologists lived in the rural town of San Lucas Tolimán, at an elevation of 5,600 feet, to set up and operate a mobile clinic for those in need.

Our Medical Mission

Our medical mission in Guatemala began on December 1, 2018, when a team of physicians, audiologists, nursing staff and I arrived in Guatemala City. With us we had 17 bags filled with the medical care and supplies needed to set up a mobile clinic to treat the people of Guatemala with ear, nose and throat ailments. Once in Guatemala City, we traveled nearly 100 miles by van to the shores of Lake Atitlan, where we would be staying for the next week. The town of San Lucas Tolimánis, located at 5,600 feet, is immediately adjacent to the active Volcano Atitlan, though it has not erupted since 1853.

We set up our mobile clinic and began seeing patients with a variety of ear, nose and throat complaints. Some of the issues we treated included hearing loss, chronic ear infections, nasal obstruction, chronic sinusitis, chronic cough and chronic tonsillitis. Because many of the households in this part of Guatemala continue to use wood for heating and cooking, locals are continuously exposed to a great deal of wood smoke year-round, contributing to their chronic ear, nose and throat diseases. After ensuring there were not any patients who needed emergency care, we identified those who would benefit from surgical treatment and booked our surgery schedule for the remainder of the week.

The audiologists in our group continued to see and treat patients for hearing loss throughout the week. In total, we tested 139 adults and 75 children for hearing loss, of which 16 adults and 15 children were provided with much-needed hearing aids.

Audiologic Evaluation Training

We also provided training to local Guatemalan audiologists concerning performing audiologic evaluation and hearing aid fitting, to ensure the town would be able to provide treatments to those in need after we left.

Our team was fortunate to work in a space provided by Hospital Monseñor Gregorio Schaffer, a Catholic priest from Minnesota, who founded the facility in 1963. For over 50 years, the hospital has been in continuous operation and received numerous advanced upgrades.

We also worked closely with Dr. Rafael Tuun, a physician from San Lucas Tolimán, who has been in charge of the hospital for over two decades. His assistance and guidance in working with the local population was invaluable. Without the generosity of Monseñor Schaffer and his facility and Dr. Tuun, our team would not have been able to impact the Guatemalan community in the way we did.

Universal Healthcare

Written in Guatemala’s Constitution is the right to universal health care for every Guatemalan citizen.  However, the national health service available is severely underfunded and is not free to the patients. As a result, many Guatemalans do not have access to or cannot afford routine and emergent health care. The ratio of doctors to patients is about .9 to 1,000, leaving extensive gaps in the service. Like our medical mission team, there are many nongovernmental organizations and private initiatives working to fill these gaps.

Conclusion

I can confidently say that every member of our team, including myself, found this trip to be a valuable and gratifying experience. The local Guatemalan people were wonderful to work with and I was touched by the appreciation they showed our team. Though our trip was limited to a week, I feel that we were able to provide crucial care to the patients we saw. Ultimately, we treated 99 patients in our medical clinic and performed 21 surgical procedures, including tonsillectomy, mastoidectomy, tympanoplasty and nasal septoplasty.

Looking back at my trip to Guatemala nearly nine months later, I am still amazed by the selflessness and gratitude of the people I met. In the U.S., we often take medical care for granted as it is so accessible. It was a humbling experience to be able to provide to the people of Guatemala the services we did with just the supplies we carried in our bags. I am thankful for Puget Sound ENT for this opportunity, and grateful for my amazing team of medical professionals who went on this journey with me.

About Dr. John Parker

Dr. John Parker earned his medical degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1983. He completed a one-year internship in general surgery at the University of Illinois in 1984 and his residency in Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Illinois in 1988. Dr. Parker obtained board certification in otolaryngology in 1989.