One month ago today, I was heading home from an epic adventure with my whole family and three special team members to the eastern highlands of Guatemala to do dental mission work. We spent eight days working in a dental clinic, treating the indigenous people of Guatemala and experiencing the raw beauty of a region rarely visited or traveled to by anyone outside their country. Let me tell ya a little about this awesome trip….
After arriving in Guatemala City, we spent the first day resting, meeting our whole group (dentists and their teams from all over the US), and acclimating to the Guatemala climate—think a perfect California kind of day! The next morning we all loaded up on a deluxe motorcoach bus. It took us four hours (it actually took five hours due to road construction) from Guatemala City to a point where the road conditions changed dramatically. At this point, we boarded “chicken buses” to take us up into the highlands. This is when the trip started to get interesting. We went five more hours on dusty, bumpy, unpaved roads. If anyone in our group had ever had an issue with motion sickness, it appeared again with a vengeance. We arrived 1.5 hours late to our own welcome party, but the hosts were awaiting us eagerly, complete with Guatemalan dancers, marimba players and a traditional, special chocolate (grown and raised on premises) drink.
This marathon travel day was followed by clinic set-up at a local hospital, learning more about the community, and exploring the school where we were staying, named Sikaa’be – an agricultural and vocational training school which offers government-endorsed certifications for the programs and classes offered there for individuals to learn new job skills, helping them raise their families out of extreme poverty. The school has a large chicken and pig farm on premise, cacao, pineapple, banana trees and cardamom (their main money maker) fields for the sourcing of essential oils for Doterra, a leader in the essential oils market. The school also opened a clean water facility while we were there, that sold 5-gallon drums of water at a fourth of the price they had been previously being charged.
Clinic days were started early with a morning huddle, positive thought of the day (given each day by my own children—shameless mom pride moment), and discussion of flow of the day. Our seven U.S. dentists, two dental practitioners from Guatemala, and numerous dental team members and lay volunteers worked to make the clinic work like a well-oiled machine. Without suction or water in our portable dental units, we served more than 300 people in three days. Providing cleanings, fillings, extractions, and endodontic (yes, it’s true) treatment to the extremely grateful people of this hard-to-reach area. Consider for a moment that the endodontic treatment alone touched over 50 people … before we arrived, they never would have had access to this service. This means that over 50 people have smiles that they can be proud of—there are 50 more healthy, out-of-pain patients—there are 50 socially important, front teeth saved from removal-- there are 50 smiling, confident young people seeking out that special person to date, flirt with or marry. It really is life-changing.
"This means that over 50 people have smiles that they can be proud of—there are 50 more healthy, out-of-pain patients—there are 50 socially important, front teeth saved from removal-- there are 50 smiling, confident young people seeking out that special person to date, flirt with or marry. It really is life-changing."
And some of the best parts were the family and team bonding. I grew closer to my kids making memories that will shape our world views. My husband and I showed them firsthand about things considered “normal” at home are rare indulgences in much of the world, like drinking the water fresh from the tap, opening your mouth in the shower, or eating fresh fruit and veggies without asking 20 questions first. I grew closer to my team working in sub-par conditions on excellently resilient, stoic patients. I tested my own mental resolve while attempting to find places to treat the initial crush of patients that had walked for hours to reach us. I experienced the love of the community when our sponsor/host, Olger, told me in his broken English while stamping his foot, “when you arrive in my home (Guatemala), your family becomes MY family, and you will be treated as I would treat my own.”
No matter where we came from, the U.S. or Guatemala, there are so many constants. We all want to feel good, be healthy, meet new friends, and look our best. However, there were some glaring differences apparent too. Most all of the residents of the region subsist on less than $1.90/day and live without running water or sewer systems. Their homes were normally built out of twigs, wood, or planks with large open spots in the walls, and dirt floors. These homes were often built right on the side of the busy, dirt, main road, its road dust rising up and filtering into their homes with each passing vehicle. It is common for the Guatemalan women to cook over open fires inside their homes putting themselves and their families at great personal risk of fire and smoke inhalation. And perhaps most startlingly, girls typically become mothers at the age of 12-14, a staggering statistic that I saw with my own eyes in the clinic, as mothers commonly “wear” their babies strapped to them at all times.
It’s hard to articulate the enormity of the feelings that mission work inspires. I felt the curiosity of the little ones as they checked out strange, white foreigners for the first time. I saw my own children towering over the Guatemalan kids as they were playing catch, language barrier in full effect, having a truly wonderful time together despite the world of differences that separated them. I viewed the majesty and mysteries of the jungle, with its cacao plants, bananas and pineapples growing, while wild dogs roamed everywhere (even inside our clinic at times). I observed love for my fellow man in many situations each day, while each of my teammates shared of their time and talents. God was there in Guatemala. I could feel it. So could my 11-year-old son. At our last dinner, I noticed that he was sniffling quite a bit. I looked over to offer him a Kleenex, thinking it was just the start of allergies. It shocked me when I saw his eyes full of tears, some coursing down his cheeks. He gulped hard, attempting to stay in control of his emotions, and whispered, “I don’t want to leave. It went too fast.”
And that’s the reason I do this. It grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. I took my sweet son’s hand in mine, and whispered back, “Don’t worry, we’ll be back.”