A lesson from Juan

January 20th, 2011 by admin

One incident that was particularly memorable for me was in the small community of Yawari, which is not far from the small town of Archidona. There, our mission worked in the local elementary school, where we set up stations on the basketball court and in some classrooms. Chickens and dogs wandered around the school, children played on swingsets, the atmosphere was lively. Our MEDLIFE students even played a game of basketball with the students after the mission, which was great to see.

Amidst the atmosphere of joy, a very sick man, aided by his relatives, slowly walked over to be seen by the doctors of MEDLIFE. This man, Juan, who was only 40 years old, but looked at least 60, had a bulging tumor in his stomach that looked like the size of a grapefruit. He said that had had this tumor for at least five years, and could not afford to see a specialist who could remove the tumor, nor was in a condition to work to save money for the operation. He was an immense pain, and any help we would could offer him was all he asked.

It was in this moment that my heart sank, a feeling of compassion that I want to help you but there is nothing I can do. Only a surgery could help this man, something we had no way of doing, and he had no way of paying for, and most likely only available in larger cities like Quito that he had no way to travel to.

These sorts of moments in our lives are difficult ones for me. We often express in English, “I wish I could help you.” “I wish” – an expression of profound desire to realize that which is not realizable – are both the easiest and the hardest words to utter, to think.

But, out of this difficult moment of truth, came a tiny miracle: Juan smiled at us, and said “gracias por venir” – ‘thank you for coming here’. No anger, no desperation from him, just a simple “thank you for coming.” Such grace, such humility, such appreciation.

We believed we had come to help and teach the people of Yawari about health, but instead we left with an important lesson about life by someone with neither health nor access to healthcare: “gracias por venir.”

-Steve Byrd

First Days in Ecuador

January 8th, 2011 by admin

The trip to Ecuador couldn’t have been any longer even if we all had asked for it. We took a delayed 6 hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Our arrival to Guayaquil was once again delayed due to the hour long wait through customs. Once our flight finally landed in Quito, we needed to take a 5 hour bus ride to our hotel near Tena.  On top of all the traveling we did, we found that night that we needed to wake up at 4:30am for our first work day in the small village of Linares.

Linares is the near the larger town of El Chaco, a town about 60 miles east of Quito. We spent Thursday and Friday working at makeshift clinics in both Linares and El Chaco. In Linares we worked in a government-type building, setting up stations in different rooms throughout the building. Students were involved in working in various stations: triage, basic health care, dentistry, pharmacy, gynecology, and health care education. Our group saw approximately 70 patients throughout the morning, including elderly, pregnant women, and children.

In El Chaco, our group saw a larger number of patients, including more children. Besides common colds, which are due to sweeping changes in weather patterns at this time of year — hot followed by cold from rains –, there were many children with parasites. These ailments are unfortunately all-too-common here due to contaminated drinking water. Also common were fungal infections, again due to the poor water.

After our brigades on Thursday and Friday, we spent our Saturday at the Jumandy Caves. Throughout our journey into the dark caverns, we waded through water, saw stalactites and stalagmites, and climbed up boulders to exit the caves, almost in an Indiana Jones-style scene. Unfortunately, no golden statues were present. But we did learn about the indigenous people of the area, the “Quijos”.

Following the Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th century, the Quijos, led by Jumandy, rebelled against Spanish rule, using the caves as a hiding place to plan their rebellions. According to the guides, the Quijos burned down some of the original Spanish colonies in the area, due to the fact that they witnessed the exploitations and murders of the indigenous people. Another use of these caves was a sanctuary: the natives would go into the caves and infuse a sacred plant. This sacred plant would provide hallucinations that would come in the form of a serpent. These practices helped the Quijos guide themselves through life and reincarnation. Today these practices are in decline, mainly because of the Catholic Church and Western medicine, but do still occur within some villages in this area. Many natives still know of many forms of plants that are used as medicines, and used to understand our afterlife.

Since we are on a medical mission here in Ecuador, providing Western medicine to people in these rural areas, an interesting question to ask is: Is Western medicine really superior? Many, of course, would give a resounding “yes” to that question. But the natives are still using many plants in this area as medicines. And if these plants indeed work for their ailments, isn’t there something to be learned from them as well?

-Steve and Marie