What Guatemala Gave Me
“It is so easy to incorrectly assume that because you do more, or because you have more, that you are more”, Dr. Ronny Alvarado Gamarro told us as he looked around the small room at Los Olivos Hotel. It was Monday night, a few hours after our very first day of clinic at Doña Ana’s house, where we had seen close to one hundred patients. As Dr. Ronny spoke to us about cultural competency, the room was buzzing with excitement from the day’s work.
“Whether consciously or not, you come here and initially think that you are the ones who have something to contribute to the people of Guatemala”, he continued. “And you do have something to offer: your time, your resources, and your compassion. But very rarely do you think about what citizens of third-world countries have to offer you, and that’s because colonization has conditioned you to think that we have very little to offer you. As the week passes, I challenge you to remember that we are all people. Period. And because of this fact, we all have something to contribute. I also want you to think about why you decided to come on this trip. Don’t give me any logical reasons—I want you to think about what you felt that propelled you to come.”
Dr. Ronny’s talk went straight to my heart. The truth in his words stung; although I hated to admit it, I had arrived ignorantly thinking I was going to be improving their lives, and never once realized that Dr. Ronny, Wilder, Hugo, Doña Ana, Jose, and all the other Guatemalan medical personnel and patients were going to give me so much more. I didn’t arrive in Guatemala expecting anything in return, because I had foolishly thought that they were unable to give anything back to me.
While we worked at the clinics in Buena Vista, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Xeabaj, and Pujijil, Dr. Ronny’s words replayed in my mind. As one of the translators, I had the beautiful opportunity to more personally interact with the patients and the doctors. I witnessed the complicated dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship, and was able to listen as the patients described the pain in their joints, chest, eyes, stomachs, and hearts. Very quickly, one sees the similarities between all human bodies: Americans also complain about problems with gastritis and arthritis, cataracts and allergies. After embracing the physical similarities, it is only natural to see that humans are humans are humans. As Dr. Steve Leuthner told me at the Pop Wuj Clinic, “We are all people. I see myself as no better than any of my patients. At the same time, I don’t think anybody is better than me. I have just as much to contribute to them as they have to contribute to me. We’re all equal.”
This message of equality—realizing that we are all people who face the same adversities and issues but in different contexts, and that everyone has a story they want to share—was the most important lesson I learned from the people of Guatemala and everyone associated with Timmy. I had been taught this message ever since I was a little kid, but I realized that I didn’t believe it with every fiber of my being. It was a lesson I used to have to think about logically, whereas now, it’s a feeling that murmurs deep inside of me, constantly coursing through me, and it is this feeling that has brought a sense of peace to my life.
This very feeling also gave all of my experiences a magical touch: it made all moments a sacred gift, whether it was riding in the van from one location to another, tickling the children and having their musical laughter fill the room, or sharing a smile with one of the women. Once I forced myself to break all stereotypes and realize that we all have a right to life’s gifts, my world just opened and blossomed. It’s hard to describe, but I felt the people’s stories all around me. Sometimes they were so poignant and palpable, it was almost like a thick fog that just completely enveloped me. Sometimes, the stories were more distant, like when I walked down the busy, colorful streets of Xela with other Timmies—but they were always there.
When Dr. Ronny first asked us what feelings and emotions nudged us to apply to the Timmy Medical Brigade, I was hesitant to look inside myself to honestly answer the question. But I knew all along that the reason I had applied had been a selfish one: I had a growing feeling of emptiness inside of me, and I wanted the experiences of this trip to fill it with something: life, love, purpose, or excitement. Even before the trip began, I had made the trip about me.
Every patient that left the clinic always thanked us, and sometimes even awarded us with a heartfelt hug, kiss, or handshake. But the truth is, I thank them for bestowing me with their unrestricted smiles, hugs, and welcoming. Every woman, man and child infected me with their laid-back sense of time, their love for life, and their ability to truly relish in every second of their lives. They gave me the gift of life: love, joy, and passion. Through their very existence, they taught me about friendship and hope. They graciously invited me into their life and shared their stories, and when we parted ways, we took a little bit of each other with us. This building of relationships is what literally pushes me to study and work hard to become a doctor. I yearn for that intertwining of lives and stories in my everyday life. They remind me that people are the one of the biggest reason for life’s beauty.
Timmy Global Health, I will never tire of thanking you for this experience that you have allowed me to be a part of. Please know that this experience has strengthened my desire to help others, that relationships have been formed across cultures, and that my way of thinking is now backwards. That is to say, I am constantly learning that I cannot accept what society feeds me, and instead must set out to work with others to find the truth. Thank you, thank you, thank you.