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

In 45 years, thousands of native poor have benefited from Guatemala Mission medical teams

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the May 21, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Immaculata Burke and Dr. Jose Miguel (center) of the Spokane Guatemala Mission Clinic in Novillero. Others are, from left, Manuel Carac, Delores Lucila Yac, and Gregorio Can, native people who work in the clinics, and and right, Sister Marie Tolle. The medical team attends to the emergency and preventive care needs of thousands of native Mayan people in the mission area. (IR photo courtes of the Guatemala Commission)

Several years ago, a native man caught Sister Bobbie’s attention as she was talking with some visitors near the door of her convent in Novillero, Guatemala. The young Mayan apologized for interrupting and spoke to her, softly and respectfully, in Spanish.

Sister Bobbie excused herself and was gone for a while. Returning to the group, she rejoined the conversation as if nothing unusual had happened. After continuing on for a time, one of the visitors asked what had drawn her away. “Oh, it was a friend of the poor fellow. He had nearly severed his finger with a machete. We have no doctor here so I re-attached his finger. I think he’ll be okay. Shall we all go inside and catch up on things?”

Sister Bobbie was a member of the medical teams that have been attending to the emergency and preventive care needs of the Mayan Indians in the Spokane Guatemala mission since 1964 . The personnel have changed, but the devoted nuns have been turning medical emergencies into routine ever since they arrived 45 years ago. That was when the Daughters of Mary Health of the Sick were welcomed to Novillero, just five years after the Spokane Mission was started.

The health programs of the Spokane Mission reflect a fascinating history and record of achievements. A guiding objective of the program has been to demonstrate God’s love for the poor and oppressed by caring for the sick and infirm without regard to color, race, or creed. This frequently added up to exhaustive effort and hours of hiking into remote areas to bring medical advice and compassionate care.

Satellite clinics were established in Nahuala and Ixtahuacán shortly after the arrival of the Daughters of Mary Health of the Sick. By 1970, a nutrition center for malnourished children had also been set up in conjunction with the international CARITAS organization. A health promoter program was also initiated.

Sister Immaculata Burke, a registered nurse and a Sister of Charity of New York, took over the health programs in 1971. She continues to manage the operations at this time. This year marks 38 years of service for the 89-year-old Irish nun.

An intense nationwide vaccination program was initiated in 1974. However, convincing some of the native people to accept vaccinations in the early days was not easy. Approximately 75 youngsters died from measles in one of the remote villages before the vaccines were accepted and available.

Sisters Sheila Brosnan and Barbara (Bobbie) Ford, both nurses and members of the Sisters of Charity, brought energetic dedication to the health programs in 1978. They arranged for thousands of children to be vaccinated, and were instrumental in helping villages develop clean, potable water supplies. This was in addition to the spiritual and emotional support that was an integral part of their daily routines. The political violence of the early 1980s that resulted in the death of over 200,000 native people had a detrimental impact on mission health programs.

Training meetings were prohibited and all classes had to be canceled. Some of the best health promoters disappeared or were found among the dead. Sister Barbara Ford, a nurse who survived the war years, was shot in Guatemala City in 2001 in what appeared to be a carjacking. She had worked courageously to help locate the mass graves of those killed during years of violence in order to give them a proper burial. Many people still consider her a martyr and question whether she died as a consequence of car theft or as a result of her efforts in connection with the violence of the 1980s.

A high point in the history of health and clinic program was the acceptance, in 1985, of Dr. Jose Miguel Vasques as the first K’iché-speaking physician associated with the program. Dr. Miguel added professional expertise to the program and has played a significant role in guiding its development. He received a very warm reception by Bishop William Skylstad and the Catholic community when he visited Spokane in 2001.

In addition to typical clinic operations, the health programs have been expanded to a large number of projects appropriate for the poor in Third World environments. Monthly vaccination programs are routinely carried out to remote areas where shots are administered to hundreds of youngsters that would not otherwise have access to preventive vaccines. Success in achieving the health care goals is evidenced by the antibiotics, vaccinations, and pre- and postnatal care given to approximately 1,500 patients monthly.

Other health-related projects include dental care, latrine construction, the building of stoves and chimneys, and the advanced training of health promoters for rural areas. Many of the poor in the area do not have water or electricity in their houses. They cook over an open fire on the dirt floor of their house. The stoves with chimneys reduce the amount of smoke, which helps minimize lung and eye infections.

The availability of health promoters has also had a significant impact in rural areas of the estimated 40,000 population of Ixtahuacán. After two to three years of training, the health promoters are qualified to go out to assist the families with basic care, such as food, nutrition, care of infections, prenatal and midwife procedures, and so on.

Health care programs have also been extended to specialized surgery needs, such as the removal of cataracts. Some of these have been facilitated by inviting medical teams from Spokane, and elsewhere, to perform surgeries in on-site facilities. Spokane-based teams have participated in two cataract surgery projects in the mission during the past few years. The clinic and health programs have received substantial support from both the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in New York, and from individuals and parishes in the Diocese of Spokane. In addition to two individual donors, supportive parishes currently include the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane; St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley; and St. Mary of the Rosary Parish, Chewelah.

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

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