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

Spokane medical teams lay groundwork for eye surgeries in Guatemala mission clinic

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 26, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Guatemala eye clinic

Maureen O’Keefe of Spokane conducts preliminary exams for potential candidates for eye surgery in the clinic in Novillero, Guatemala. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

Santos Guachiac lives in Pacutamah, a small “caserio” perched on the coastal side of some heavily wooded volcanic mountains of Northwestern Guatemala. There are no roads to his village and most of the 18 or 20 families who live there are related.

Getting into or out of Pacatumah is not easy. It is a walk of four or five hours just to get to the village of Ixtahuacán, with an additional six miles to the Pan American Highway. Ixtahuacán is the village where Spokane Missionary Father David Baronti lives. The trail is not an easy one; there are streams to cross and steep mountains to climb. The trip is especially difficult for 75-year-old Santos, because he can hardly see to stay on the narrow and winding trails.

Santos is one of over 200 native people of the Highlands who made their way to the Novillero Clinic during the first week of February. They came in response to notices posted in larger villages, messages broadcast over a radio station, and church announcements.

The notices told the native Mayan Indians of a team of doctors from Spokane who would perform eye exams, screening candidates for a potentially sight-restoring surgical procedure. Screening examinations would begin on Tuesday, Feb. 3, and surgeries would take place during the third week of February in the same Novillero Clinic (“Spokane medical teams head to Guatemala to perform sight-saving surgeries,” IR 2/5/04).

Like other mornings in the high mountains, Tuesday started off with freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, the line of potential patients began to form by 7 a.m., even though the clinic did not open for another hour.

After a few hours of waiting, Santos began his six-step examination process at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. The cataracts in both of his eyes were so advanced that he could not even make out the largest letter on an eye chart. His right eye had a 2+ cataract, and his left eye an even worse 4+ “white” cataract. The doctors determined that the white cataract was operable, and measurements were taken for a lens. His surgery was scheduled for two weeks later (Feb. 17th) when the surgery team, also from Spokane, would be in Novillero.

Another candidate arriving for screening was Manuela Mas Tzep, a 70-year-old woman who weighs only 69 pounds. Like most others, Manuela needed help traveling to the Novillero Clinic. Examinations revealed that she had 4+ cataracts in both eyes. The ocular report was that “She can’t distinguish anything,” and would be a candidate for surgery if her bronchitis could be cleared up within the coming week.

Edgar Manuel Coj is a 14-year-old boy who has no sight in his right eye. His vision in his left eye is limited by a 4+ cataract. The screening exams concluded that surgery would be desirable, but risky. There appeared to be a good chance his sight might be improved, but surgical complications might also leave him completely blind. The optometrists recommendation was that Edgar “May or may not have surgery. Dr. Wilkerson will decide.”

As the screening team completed their examinations, ocular measurements for the patients were emailed to Dr. Wilkerson in Spokane. He did some quick computer calculations to determine the lens requirements and ordered lenses for the 41 individuals who were scheduled to undergo surgery.

On Feb. 14 the surgical team left Spokane with the appropriate lenses, plus 13 other bags of medical supplies, for the week of surgeries in Novillero. In addition to Dr. Wilkerson, the team included four nurses, assistants and operating room personnel as well as engineering and administrative help. Results of the operations will be reported on at a later date.

(Jerry Monks is a member of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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