Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



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


Guatemala mission’s clinics get a boost into the computer age, thanks to doctor, son, and volunteers

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the July 31, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Patrick (left) and Zepha Monks (right) develop the clinic data base with Dr. Jose Miguel at the clinic training room in Novillero. Manuel, a clinic worker, looks on. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

Sister Immaculata Burke was in tears when Dr. Jose Miguel notified her, in late 1999, that he was considering leaving the clinic at Novillero to work in Quetzal-tenango. With a termination date only weeks away, the Sister of Charity was faced the possibility of losing the services of the only native physician she had for her clinics in the Spokane Guatemala Mission. Beyond that, Dr. Miguel had been an extremely competent and dedicated servant to his own Mayan people since 1985.

Quetzaltenango is the second-largest city in Guatemala, lying on the northern side of a mountain range, about 50 miles from Novillero. The two locations are connected by a steep section of the Pan American Highway, which rises to an elevation of almost 12,000 feet and straddles the backbone of mountains that are the home to thousands of Mayan Indians.

The highway continues on up through Mexico, becomes Interstate 5 when it enters the U.S, and passes on through Seattle to Canada.

The importance of education to Dr. Miguel

Sister Immaculata knew that in Quetzaltenango the doctor could easily double his salary. However, Dr. Miguel’s motivation for moving was not simply financial. He was more concerned with educational opportunities for his children. Thanks in part to a scholarship from Our Lady of Fatima Parish, plus encouragement and support from priests of the Spokane Mission years earlier, Jose Miguel had worked his way through medical school. His was an unheard of achievement for a native Quiché Indian.

Knowing how important the medical training had been for himself, Dr. Miguel felt obliged to provide the best education he could for his children. Unfortunately, that meant transferring his work to a larger city where he could make more income and pay the cost for his children to attend a good school. In Quetzaltenango, Dr. Miguel’s son, Robinson, and daughters Serama and Susan could take rigorous math and science courses as well as literature, art, and other subjects. Moreover, many of the classes would be in English as well as in Spanish.

Sister Immaculata appealed to the Spokane Diocese for help with a plan in mind. With some additional funding, she felt that the doctor could live in Quetzal-tenango and enroll his children in the selected schools, while still keeping his job at her clinics. Yes, it would involve considerable travel. However, she would adjust his work schedule and help cover the extra costs.

The Spokane Diocese responded to Sister Immaculata’s plea with typical generosity. St. Mary Parish of Spokane added some major support to that already being contributed by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Chewe-lah’s St. Mary Parish, Holy Rosary Parish of Pomeroy and St. Agnes Parish, Ritzville. Meanwhile, the doctor selflessly accepted the additional burden of driving over the treacherous mountain roads several times a week.

Now, after only three years, the wisdom of Dr. Miguel’s foresight is paying big dividends for everyone involved. A meeting with his children, aged 8, 14, and 15, reveals their inherent ability to converse, in either English or Spanish, on a wide variety of issues. All of the children have been engaged in research projects where they collect field data and prepare reports of their findings. While studying issues of drugs and street crime, the older boy, Robinson, even did interviews with homeless youngsters in Quetzaltenango. He has also completed advanced training in computer applications, including the study of Pascal and data base applications.

Getting computers to Guatemala

With this year’s dedication of the Chwi Patan Clinic, Dr. Miguel’s medical responsibilities now extend to four villages: Novillero, Nahualá, Ixtahuacán, and Chwi Patan. Keeping hand-written records of the thousands of patients in these areas has become an overwhelming task. Sister Immaculata has been working diligently for the past two years to obtain computers so that the record keeping activities might be automated.

In late June of this year, four representatives from the Spokane Diocese arrived in Guatemala via Mexicana Airlines with new eMac computers for the four clinics. Patrick and Zepha Monks, the volunteer computer consultants from Seattle, had already equipped the eMacs with the FileMaker program (in Spanish) that was designed to house the data base for the clinic operations.

Getting the computers through Guatemalan Customs was a bedeviling, late-night experience. After some delay, which included several phone calls, plus the paying of a cash fee on the donated equipment, the four computers were safely in three taxis. Two days later they were set up in a room at the Novillero Clinic and training was underway.

The four large flat-screen power PCs are ideally suited to clinic operations. In addition to the option of using either an English or Spanish operating system, the machines have CD and DVD burners. They are also equipped with USB ports that accommodate digital camera data and internet access. The internet access is not important at this time because the clinic sites all lack phone service. However, the USB ports facilitate easy transfer of information via pocket-sized Flash Memory storage devices, so that data from all clinics can be easily transported and updated in a central file.

What had been envisioned as a series of short training sessions turned out to be virtually an around-the-clock system design session.

Beginning with the most simple input of a patient’s name into the data base, the system designers from Seattle found that things are done differently in Guatemala. Social security numbers do not exist, and many people in the Highlands have the same first, middle, and last names. Furthermore, when a patient comes to a clinic, the first question asked is what “common” family they belong to, followed by what canton or village they live in, and finally what their name is. Their name is then associated with a number, but there may be another person from another village with the same number. The clinic system design thus required considerable creativity.

Dr. Miguel and his son, Robinson, were the prime trainees. They gave high priority to understanding and implementing the new computer system. Robinson seemed to cherish the opportunity to work with professionals like Pat and Zepha Monks on a system that was so vital to his father’s work.

His prior understanding of data bases, from his course work in Quetzaltenango, was critical to the success of the design and training activity. It enabled Pat to incorporate some very advanced features that might be the envy of many users here in the U.S. These include a pull down menu from which the doctor can select from a preprogrammed list of diagnosis, as well as a menu to designate which treatment or medicine has been prescribed.

Another feature of the program, which Zepha implemented, is the ability to incorporate a photo of the patient in the patient’s personal file. Pat and Zepha’s gift of a digital camera to Sister Immaculata was a strong incentive to make this feature a continuing reality.

Implementing a new computer system is never easy, and problems are bound to occur. In anticipation of that, Robinson is arranging for email access so that he can send the complete program to Pat in Seattle. Pat can then help work out solutions and email them back to Robinson.

In the meantime, Robinson, Serama, and Susan Miguel are continuing on with their schooling in Quetzaltenango. If, like his father, Robinson can obtain a scholarship, he says he would like to go to college to study “medicine and computers.” What in the world would ever prompt a young Mayan Indian boy to want to do something like that?

(Jerry Monks is a member of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission. He recently returned from yet another visit to Guatemala.)


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