Another world

Our mission to Guatemala was grueling—and I can’t wait to go back

Despite the discomforts and even dangers, Jeffrey Tsai, OMS II, felt renewed by the medical mission.


As told to Patrick Sinco, managing editor

Last spring, I accompanied a group of more than 50 DOs and MDs, first-year osteopathic medical students, premeds and other volunteers on a DOCARE International mission to Guatemala.

During the trip, we cared for almost 1,000 adults and more than 500 children in the villages of El Zapote, Prados Del Rio, Ceiba Amelia, Guadalupe and Hacienda Nuevo Mundo in southern Guatemala. Despite the discomforts and even dangers, our time in Guatemala renewed in me the simple, fundamental desire to help people as an osteopathic physician. I can’t wait to go back.

It was early June, the beginning of the rainy season. Indeed, for much of the trip, the rain seemed endless. At night, driving on sinuous mountain roads, our buses were the only sources of light—except for the lightning slicing through the darkness. At times I was petrified, and I quietly wondered, “Is this medical mission worth risking my life?”

Our trip to Hacienda Nuevo Mundo, in full thunderstorm, was harrowing. On the way there, our bus caravan slogged across three rivers—the kind without bridges. As we crossed the the fourth, our bus stopped moving. We sat, anxious. The wheels spun and still we didn’t move. We were thousands of miles away from home, with little control over what would happen next. Then, our bus started to list, and praying gave way to screaming.

Thankfully, we were rescued by tour guides, who arrived shortly and helped all of us step out of the bus and wade safely across the river.

But the day’s challenges were only beginning. When we arrived, muddied and frayed, in Nuevo Mundo, we unloaded our supplies and set up our clinic on a tented basketball court at an elementary school. The constant rain bulleted our tent, intensifying the rotten odor of scattered animal corpses and encouraging the migration of large, strange insects into our shelter.

As the medical leader of a triage station, I addressed my group of first-year students and premeds. I meant it when I said, “Let‘s enjoy this moment.” Despite the conditions, we were pleased to be able to provide free care to 300 impoverished Guatemalans that day.

But it was the end of the day I’ll remember best. Weary and a little grumpy, acutely missing the comforts of home, we were packing up our clinic when a woman and her son appeared. She asked if it was too late to be treated. I, for one, could’ve tipped over from fatigue. She begged us to look at her son. She was concerned about her boy’s chest palpitations and asthma symptoms.

Without even thinking, Paul McHugh, DO, the leader of our mission, offered to examine her son, even though he was as exhausted from the long day as the rest of us.

He treated the boy, who was 5 years old, learning that he had been regularly drinking coffee. Renee, the mother, began to open up about dermatitis on the back of her hands and a chronic urinary burning sensation. We conducted a urinalysis and confirmed that she had a urinary tract infection. Dr. McHugh prescribed an antibiotic and gave her a tube of hydrocortisone cream, along with albuterol inhalers for her son. Under Dr. McHugh’s supervision, I performed compression of the fourth ventricle on Renee and the boy.

The encounter itself wasn’t much different than any of the others that day. But watching Dr. McHugh cheerfully answer a patient’s call at the end of a very long, at times terrifying, day will live with me. That is the kind of physician I want to be. I needed that reminder.

I felt Renee’s tension slacken under the osteopathic manipulative treatment. I felt my own troubles dissipate when she confided that she had seen Dr. McHugh last year during a DOCARE medical mission to the region. She said that osteopathic physicians were compassionate. That was why she came back. That was why she walked for miles with her son to see us.

If only you knew what we went through to see you, I thought to myself. Renee thanked us, smiled wide as she posed for pictures with us, and thanked us again. I, however, was even more grateful.

One comment

  1. Bruce Maulbetsch, D.O.

    Enjoyed your article. Some fun!! I did a mission with DOCARE in the late 1980’s to central Mexico, and did another mission with another group in 2007 to Guatemala on the Rio Dulce. Makes ya feel good, doesn’t it?
    Take care – Bruce Maulbetsch.

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