From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spokane extends ‘healing hand’ to Guatemalan catechist

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the March 1, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

April 15, 2000 began like many other days for Salvador Guachiac. Salvador is a Mayan Indian who lives in a small village that is a five-hour walk from the remote village of Ixtahuacan, Guatemala. Salvador is a volunteer catechist and, like some of his neighbors, was volunteering one day a week to work on a dirt road that has been under construction for nearly half of his lifetime.

The winding trail that Salvador was helping to build forges through some of the most rugged volcanic terrain in the world. When two more kilometers are completed, it will link the village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, at an elevation of about 9,500 feet, with the village of Guinealis in the Coastal Region of Guatemala.

No one could have imagined the accident that struck Salvador on that April day, nor how a landslide in such a remote region of Guatemala would come to touch the lives of so many people thousands of miles away in Spokane, Wash.

People of the mountains

Although several small villages lie hidden among the slopes of the steep and heavily forested mountains that separate Ixtahuacan from Guinealis, no road connects the villages to one another. Nor do any phone lines, electricity grids, or Internet service providers give the natives easy access to the conveniences of more developed parts of the world. After the road is through, it will still be a long walk from Salvador’s village of PaCutama to the road.

The lives of the people in the remote highlands are simple — not complicated by traffic congestion, income taxes, and ATM machines. The people deal with the realities of food supply, shelter, and the weather, just as they have for hundreds of years. For instance, Salvador feeds his family through his work in a small corn field and the harvest from a few coffee and banana plants. In addition to his wife and two children, his small house is also a home to his parents and two sisters.

Buried alive

The storms, earthquakes, and hurricanes that assault the mountains are accepted as a part of nature, a part of life.

The steep mountainside where Salvador was working is also a part of nature, a part of life in the Guatemala highlands.

There was not much room between the Caterpillar tractor and the hillside. The driver stopped to make a repair and Salvador was helping him. As they bent over, working on the track, the hillside suddenly gave way.

It came crashing down, thrusting them against the tractor and covering them with rocks and dirt. As rocks pelted his back, Salvador’s head was pushed in under the steel track on the side of the tractor.

It took about five minutes of frantic digging for co-workers to free the two men from the mud. The tractor driver had a broken back, and the bones in Salvador’s right elbow were not only broken, but crushed.

After both men were freed, it was a half-hour walk out of the mountains to the nearest accessible road.

When doctors saw the condition of Salvador’s arm, they put it in a splint and considered amputating it. Instead, with the persuasion (and life savings) of Salvador, they put a fixture on it, in the event that he might get some more advanced medical care somewhere else.

Unfortunately, one of the four pins holding the fixture went through a nerve in his arm. The procedure left Salvador barely able to move one finger, with his thumb locked in place adjacent to the palm of his hand. Then his shoulder froze in place.

Help from Spokane

The medical and faith communities of Spokane have a long history of reaching out to help those in need. After learning of Salvador’s condition, Father David Baronti, David Dodroe and others sought assistance from the medical community and the Guatemala Commission of the diocese. They got a quick and positive response.

Maureen O’Keefe, a Spokane nurse attending a Healing-The-Children meeting in Guatemala, arranged for X-rays to be sent to Dr. Robert Brewster, an orthopedic physician in Spokane. Shirl Lewis, of Healing-The-Children supplied the airline ticket. Accompanied by David Dodroe, a Spokanite who has been volunteering his time in Guatemala, Salvador arrived in Spokane two days before Christmas.

Hospital care had been prearranged, at no cost, by Providence Sister Rosalie Locati and Skip Davis, Chief Executive Officer of Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Over the next week, Salvador’s dental work was quickly completed by Dr. Jack Osello. He was given a physical examination by Dr. Sam Palpant, with blood analysis by Pathology Associates Medical Labs. Dr. Brewster and Dr. Russell VanderWilde both examined Salvador. With X-rays processed by Inland Imagining, Dr. Brewster, assisted with anesthetics by Maureen O’Keefe, removed the external fixture from Salvador’s arm.

In a two-and-one-half-hour operation at Holy Family Hospital, Dr. Paul Horn made five incisions and repositioned the tendons in Salvador’s right hand so that he might regain the use of his fingers and wrist. The doctor also separated Salvador’s thumb and forefinger and loosened Salvador’s shoulder.

After surgery, the focus turned to therapy, with extensive care from occupational therapists John Hatcher and Kari Bowton. They provided stretching and exercise therapy almost daily for more than two weeks, enabling Salvador to begin to move his fingers. Kathy Higginbotham complemented this with massage work on his arm and shoulder.

Favorable Results

By Feb. 19, when Salvador was leaving Spokane, he was able to grasp objects with his right hand using his index finger and his thumb. He could also raise his two arms in parallel. The long hours of operations, therapy, and exercise had paid off, and the Spokane community had come through for someone in need once again.

During his stay, Salvador also had an opportunity to experience other aspects of life in the Spokane area. These included site-seeing tours of downtown, Riverfront Park, Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene. He even had an opportunity to attend some of the Gonzaga men’s basketball games, so he leaves Spokane as an avid ZAG fan.

Salvador’s accident was a tragic event in his life. But mixed with the pain and loss he must live with are some very positive and fond memories of the wonderful response of the people of Spokane. All his care was donated. The medical work on his arm and hand will most likely allow him to continue farming to provide for his young family. The help he received and concern for others that he witnessed here will also strengthen his faith in humanity, as he returns to his own voluntary work as a catechist in his remote village in the mountains of Guatemala.

(Monks is the director of the diocese’s Guatemala Mission effort and provided the photos used in this article.)

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