Thank you for your support for my recent medical mission, both in prayers and stewardship. It is a joint effort and could not be done without your help. I include below information about the mission and a few photographs. First, importantly, I hope and pray you and yours are all safe in these pandemic times. Barbara and I are doing fine in our Vienna home, both telecommuting 100% for our jobs (engineer and teacher). I returned from my second medical mission to Guatemala on March 15th, to immediately enter self-quarantine due to the travel back, in three airplanes and through four airports. My short-term mission compatriots and I (including Sam Khalil, also of Ss Peter & Paul Antiochian Orthodox parish of Potomac Maryland) returned ‘just in time’ to avoid the travel restrictions and cancelled flights, but immediately into the new normal of the pandemic. I want to share with you some information about the mission and a few photographs. The core 10-day mission was essentially the same as the previous medical mission I attended in November 2018, which had oversight by Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). The March mission timing is selected to coincide with spring break from medical schools to allow opportunity for students to attend. The March mission is organized by Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh. Here is an account of the day-to-day happenings on the mission trip: While the short-term mission trip began on March 6th, I personally took the opportunity to attend a Spanish immersion language school in San Cristobal, Mexico for the prior week. Instituto Jovel is the language school selected by long-term missionaries. The long-term missionaries attend this school for approximately six months, becoming totally fluent. The language school arranges a “home stay” at a small bed-and-breakfast with the widow Beatriz (Betty) and her aged mother Inez. Both speak only Spanish, with whom I would eat and practice language with each breakfast and lunch. The instruction at the language school included three hours of instruction by two Spanish teachers in succession, focused on specific needs; my primary weakness is grammar. Each afternoon, I would complete homework followed by a dinner in town interacting with the populace. God-willing, I hope to do this mission annually, as I can, so improvement of my very rudimentary junior high Spanish of half a century ago was warranted.
On Friday, March 6th, I traveled early back to Tuxla and to meet two slightly early-arrival fellow missionaries, the handyman Jim, who I recruited, and the translator Anna, a retired Spanish teacher from Seattle. With the help of a local taxi driver, we visited three hardware stores to find the best prices and quality, purchasing approximately $1400 worth of tools and construction supplies for the mission. The long-term OCMC missionaries, (Jesse Brandow, who visited Ss Peter and Paul, Potomac this Fall, and Father John Chakos, priest emeritus at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh and his Presbytera Sandy) came to meet the short-term missionary team, all who coordinated flights to arrive prior to dinner hour. We had a first dinner, which included a meeting/briefing together; we stayed that night in Tuxla.
On Sunday, March 7th, the entire team loaded onto an 18-passenger chartered bus for the day-long drive thru the mountains and across the border to the mission in Aguacate, Guatemala. Our short term team was eight (two originally who planned to come, a physician and her daughter cancelled due to the coronavirus issues at that time). The team included an MD, an oral surgeon, an EMT (me), two pre-med students, an optometry tech (Sam Khalil), a Spanish translator, and a handyman/construction-lead. The long-term missionaries devote this week to support the team, precluding time with their usual work, serving as translators for the doctor and dentist and coordinating other clinic support work. The seminarians prepared and served food, and supported the construction initiatives for the week.
We arrived late afternoon to Aguacate (a large village, small town of 4000 souls) with a bit of drama…a recent rain and a steep dirt/gravel road one mile short of our destination nearly stopped us. A half dozen times, the bus driver tried to accelerate and mount the slippery hill road, only to have to back down and try again. Finally we offloaded most of the passengers, I rode shotgun with the driver, backing down further to the end of the asphalt to get a good running start. I encouraged our valiant driver to higher speed and more daring than previous attempts, and we (barely) made it to the top of the slippery hill, to reload the remaining passengers (except Fr Chakos who had walked to the church/seminary/clinic) for the last half mile to our destination. We were greeted with shouts of joy and firecrackers, to meet the vicar, Fr Evangelos, the other long term missionary Fr Juvenal (previously a long-term missionary in Alaska) and their ten or so seminarians. Room assignments and dinner at the Giron Medical Clinic followed. At that evening’s first full joint team dinner, a local resident MD and a local dentist joined together with our U.S. short term mission team in the medical, dental, optometry and construction mission.
On Sunday, March 8th, the main event was Divine Liturgy in the church, in fact the Orthodox cathedral for Guatemala, which is connected to both seminary and clinic.
An important aspect was our medical team was being introduced during the service to the populace, who filled the large church. In the afternoon we organized our clinic staffing, checked the pharmacy for supplies and medications, and formed a small construction team (3 full time, and 2 part time carpenters). We tested our impromptu augmented clinic in the afternoon on the priests, seminarians and their families.
During the week of March 9th through 13th, our main clinic routine was after breakfast with the seminarians in the ground floor dining hall (some 30 of us total), and then commencing clinic hours at about 8:30 am, and operating (with a quick break for lunch) until about 4:30 pm. I helped refresh one of the pre-med students on the taking of vitals (my usual station). The other pre-med student served as dental assistant to her father (the oral surgeon/dentist). Sam had his optometry/eyeglass shop in an antechamber near the clinic entrance, and we thus had a fully operational clinic of two examination rooms each with MD and translator, and two dental stations.
The construction team set up shop in the rear basement, to build eventually custom double doors, make the rear (previously quite hazardous) two flights of tile stairs safe with handrails and non-skid. Additionally, the team worked on a build-install kitchenette on the 3rd floor for long-term missionaries. The small kitchen addition had been requested due to now two missionary families (the newlywed Brandows, and the Manuels with a new baby). Currently, Jesse and Juanita Brandow are living in a larger city three hours south to develop a new senior seminary and for Juanita’s medical school, though temporarily located in Aguacate April & May for the coronavirus lockdowns/telecommute school. Thomas and Elizabeth Manuel are on furlough to their parents’ homes in Virginia Beach for the birth of their first child. The tile steps were slippery, especially when wet. So the improvements are beneficial for both elderly missionaries and the eventual missionary-toddler, especially.
The clinic that week saw 238 medical patients, and when dental and optometry patients are added in, approximately 400 patients total. I served as the main translator and engineering consultant for the construction team (part-time) and occasional patient greeter, medical and dental augmenter. One time, during a power outage, my flashlight lit up the dental procedure in process so it could continue until emergency power could be restored. My Spanish had been greatly improved by self-study & the week of immersion. On Saturday, March 14th, we began hearing more and more of the growing coronavirus crisis as we said our goodbyes and loaded onto the same bus. Usually the long-term missionaries accompany the group return, however I was able to relieve Jesse or Fr John Chakos of escorting us (a 2 -3 day journey for them) back for our Tuxla flights since I had experience with both the travel and Spanish language. We stopped in San Cristobal for a fine local cuisine lunch together, and a quick walk through the town and its shops. By late afternoon, we were back in our Tuxla hotel.
On Sunday, March 15th, the short-term mission team members were up early for our various flights. I arrived home about midnight Sunday. Barbara picked me up at Baltimore Washington Airport, and we immediately restricted ourselves to our home for the duration, except for daily neighborhood walks.
This mission was, as the previous similar one in November 2018, a moving and spiritual experience. The March timeframe provided a wonderful way to be immersed in Lent, being at a seminary. The daily morning matins, pre- and post- clinic hours group meetings with prayers, and a variety of simple Lenten foods augmented the experience. The people of Aguacate and the surrounding villages are lovely, and very grateful for the medical and dental services this new (four year old) Orthodox medical clinic provide. The people I met in Aguacate teach us much about hard work and devotion to God. The church is very central to their lives, more so than the typical American with so many other distractions. As mentioned, God-willing, I hope to make the medical mission hopefully my annual mission, again in March 2021.
We (Sam and I) also hope our experience serves as an example of how young or old, whatever skill set, one can make a difference on a short term mission, and learn and grow from it. I was also impressed, again, by the holy and important work done by our dedicated Orthodox long-term missionaries, who ask our fervent prayers. I wish to encourage anyone to look up their stories on www.ocmc.org and consider a monthly support to one or more of them.
Thank you again for your crucial support for this mission,
God bless and keep you safe,
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