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

Medical teams perform second round of cataract surgeries in Guatemala mission

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the June 8, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Gregorio Joj (right) and Fabey Teruel (center) give post-operative instructions to a cataract surgery patient during the CAT I project. Gregorio, a health promoter from the Novillero Clinic, speaks both Quiché and Spanish. He enjoyed helping others and took every opportunity available to be in the operating room when surgeries were taking place. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

Gregorio Joj had an unusually beaming smile when he welcomed the Spokane-based surgery team to Guatemala in late April. Although nothing was said, the conditions that brought him back to the Solola site that day could not have been much more different from when he was there several years earlier.

During the 1980s, the Sololá compound was a highly secured military base. Guard stations, canyons and invincible fences secured its borders. Gregario was one of countless native people who were forcibly detained in the base by the Guatemalan military. Conditions were not good, but he fared better than the over 200 thousand others who were killed or missing during the violence of what was called the Guatemalan Civil War.

Much of the conflict ended with the Peace Accord of 1996. Gregorio joined the Novillero Clinic staff as a health promoter and enhanced his medical training under the tutelage of Sister Immaculata Burke and Dr. Jose Miguel. Although he holds no academic degree, his years of experience have given him a professionalism that has brought untold healing and comfort to his native people.

The Sololá base that once held frightened detainees is now a campus that houses a university, library, computer center, and soccer fields. One of the major facilities is the Sololá Eye Hospital (el Hospital de Ojos) where 20 cataract surgeries were performed by the Spokane-based medical team during the last week of April. This was a follow up to the first cataract surgery mission (CAT I) sponsored by Family-To-Family in 2004.

Like CAT I, the patients for CAT II were also Mayan Indians from the Spokane Mission area – all too poor to afford such an operation on their own. They had been previously screened for cataracts and scheduled by Sister Immaculata and Dr. Jose Miguel of the Novillero Clinic. Many of them spoke only Quiché, so Gregorio helped Dave Dodroe translate their Indian language into Spanish. Dave is a Spokanite volunteer who did the majority of the translation, for he speaks Quiché, Spanish, and English.

Dr. Craig Wilkerson, the surgeon for CAT I in 2004, performed 17 of the operations. He worked closely with Dr. Alex Silva, a young ophthalmologist from Nicaragua, who did three of the surgeries. Dr. Wilkerson was also able to exchange surgery techniques with two other Guatemalan ophthalmologists, who have offered to do surgeries at the Sololá Eye Hospital in the future.

All the nurses, technicians, and other members of the medical team, from Spokane and Helena, Mont., volunteered their time, and numerous sponsors helped fund the equipment, medical supplies and some of the transportation and housing costs. Although the project involved a significant amount of effort (and cost) to give sight to a few of the poor, it also strengthened the foundations for much longer lasting benefits.

The most immediate benefit surfaced in the smiles, hugs, and blessings that the patients bestowed on the medical team members for the time and skills they brought to Guatemala. However, their appreciation was for more than just a lens that enabled them see more clearly. It was a recognition and affirmation of their individual self worth, even though they were not important people and had nothing in the way of material goods.

Beyond the immediate benefit, a major objective of the cataract surgery projects has been to help create a structure that will enable the local community to continue this work on their own. The CAT I project demonstrated the need and helped open channels of communication with medical personnel in Guatemala.

Cat II helped confirm a longer range plan by training local ophthalmologists and providing equipment for local facilities. In particular, $7,700 worth of medicines, and $29,000 worth of major equipment brought to Guatemala for cataract surgery will be on retained there for use in the Solola Eye Hospital. This includes an Alcon phocoemulsifier, a microscope, sterilizers, and two sets of instruments. Beyond that, the National Director of Ophthalmology, Dr. Carlos Porto-carrero, has taken a personal interest in the Solola Eye Hospital, and is in the process of outfitting four operating rooms in a new wing of the facility.

(Jerry Monks volunteers with the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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