Gerry Roe & Larry Dunlap: CMT in Guatemala

May 28, 2004

I’ve always been impressed with the spirit of voluntarism and adventure in the people I meet in Eugene. This was especially true of the May 28 Potluck, when Obsidians Gerry Roe (a nurse) and Larry Dunlap (a doctor) gave us a colorful, personal view of their experiences in Guatemala as part of the Cascade Medical Team. For a week in April, the 71-member team worked in a small hospital in Solola, a few hours’ drive from Guatemala City, and gave free medical, dental and eye treatment to over fifteen-hundred Mayan patients. The team is affiliated with Helps International, a non-profit, nondenominational Christian group. Team members go at their own expense, many of them using precious vacation time.

Their talk gave me a new picture of Guatemala. I was surprised to learn that about a third of Guatemala’s population is Mayan and that their traditional culture is alive. They dress in intricately woven, brightly-colored fabrics, often bound at the waist with a long sash, which can make abdominal exams a problem. The Mayan language has over 20 different dialects, so communicating with patients was a challenge, and often involved a chain of several translators. People are poor, and life is hard. They farm without mechanized equipment, and live in homes with open fires. As a result, the team saw many patients with hernias — even young children! — and numerous burn patients. Also common were gynecological problems requiring surgery to improve a woman’s ability to function. The team treated medical problems they hadn’t seen for years in the U.S. and provided treatment and dramatically changed lives — including removing a cataract from a woman who hadn’t seen her family for ten years, and restoring movement to the hand of a child who had suffered terrible burns.

But it wasn’t all work and no play for the team. Before leaving the Lake Atitlan area they enjoyed a boat ride to the village of Santiago aboard a boat equipped with only seven life jackets for 80-some passengers. Here they witnessed Mayan culture at first hand, then returned to the resort town of Antigua for two days of rest and relaxation before going home.

Volcanoes seemed to be in almost every landscape photo we saw. Many are still active, including the one Gerry and Larry climbed at the end of their service week, 8,371-ft.-high Volcano Pacaya. A plume of sulfurous smoke rises from the peak, and just six inches or so beneath the ground they found rocks too hot to handle. At the summit Gerry and Larry presented the Mayan guide, Agusto, with an Obsidian whistle.

To some, a visit to Guatemala would be incomplete without an excursion to the ruins of Tikal, the ancient Mayan city. Not surprisingly, a few hardy travelers, including Gerry’s niece who was also a member of the team, made the long trip to Tikal to explore the ruins, and returned with strong impressions and striking photographs. Equally striking was a series of pictures from last year’s Holy Week observance. A major street was closed off, and carpets or mats (alfombras) created out of tinted sawdust, fruit, flowers, and leaves. The Holy Week procession may last up to 12 hours.

This was the third CMT trip to Guatemala, and next year they plan to send two teams. The need is so great! Most members live in Eugene, Springfield or Florence. Besides medical and dental professionals, the team includes interpreters, cooks, and various other support people. Countless others back here help make the trip possible by contributing time, money, supplies and energy. Would you like to go next year, or help others make the trip? For more information, contact Gerry Roe, Larry Dunlap, or Dennis & Valorie Schuelke (343-4988), or check the team’s web site:

— Beth Kodama

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