Team Goes to Jungles Of Guatemala

First Hand Nursing Account by Darlene Dibrito, RN 2007

Last April, my close friend and co-worker, Sue asked me to go on a girls vacation with her. We have been on many outings together and the most enjoyable one was our trip to Las Vegas a few years ago. I thought to myself, yes Las Vegas here we come! Then out of nowhere she suggested an orthopedic medical mission trip to Guatemala. It wasn’t exactly what I was thinking but I tried to remain open minded. As a nurse, it was always one of those trips that I thought I would like to do but of course I had all the excuses why not to go…what about bugs? Is the floor just going to be dirt? Will I be sleeping in a tent? What about running water? Will there be electricity for my hairdryer? It’s too expensive and I surely don’t want to use my own vacation time. I had all the reasons not to go. After my friend helped me allay all my fears of the unknown (even she didn’t know the answers), we went to our first informational meeting. This is where I was going to find out how many bugs I was going to see, and if I could use my hairdryer or not.

We only knew 3 out of the 18 volunteers at the first meeting we went to. Several other volunteers that were going to Guatemala had gone previously on other mission trips together. They already had built and experienced that special bond that only a group of missionaries can experience. They welcomed us into the group and calmed all my fears… No there were no bugs. We would not be sleeping in a tent or working on dirt floors. And yes, there would be electricity for my hairdryer. With that said, I was on board! I was going to Antigua, Guatemala… Now, how many suitcases do I get and what airport do I meet you at? That’s when they broke the news to us, we were allowed one 22 lb carry on and the other two 50 lb suitcases we could take would be for medical supplies. That was probably the most stressful thing about the trip. What in the world am I going to pack?

After a few more monthly meetings, it was getting easier to adjust to what I let my friend talk me into. In these meetings I realized each person in the group has so much to offer our mission. There were 2 surgeons, 2 anesthesiologists, one podiatry resident, 4 nurses, one anesthesia tech, 1 surgical tech, 1 orthopedic assistant, 3 interpreters, 2 pharmacists, and one physical therapist. Within a very short time, we became one very close family of professionals. We all had some of the same fears and worries; will my family be OK without me? Will I be OK without my family? Will we be safe? Is this really what God has chosen for me to do? It gave me a lot of peace to know I had this group to lean on in times when I was missing my family or when I was scared.

After we spent many long late nights packing all our supplies it was finally time to say good-bye and be on our way. We left on a Friday night at 9 PM from Calvary Lutheran Church in Brookfield. The group spent about 45 minutes loading the charter bus that would take us to Chicago. We had 38 boxes/suitcases that made up 1900 lbs of medical supplies, drugs and equipment plus all our carry on bags. We received several donations from vendors but the majority of our equipment was borrowed from area hospitals and the supplies we took were re-sterilized items that we would normally have discarded.

By the time we reached Chicago, it was around midnight on Friday. Now we had to unload the bus and check in the entire luggage. Surprisingly it went a lot smoother than I thought it would. We finally boarded our plane at 2:30 AM. We were all praying for sleep at this time. We then arrived in Guatemala City, only to have to gather the entire 38 pieces of luggage again, and then load them into another school bus and a van that we rented.

After an hour and a half drive to Antigua we gathered more supplies that were stored there and then ventured off to the hospital to drop off some equipment. By now it was 8 AM on Saturday and I was beside myself with the anticipation of a good 8 hour nap. No, that didn’t happen. It was off to the Lutheran Center to where we were staying to unload the rest of the supplies, freshen up, and then go to Fernando’s for a nice hearty breakfast and lots of coffee before we held clinic that morning. What??? Are you kidding??? I’m on vacation.

The minute I walked in that door and saw the first patient in clinic I knew that this was what I was called to do. At first I found it very stressful and chaotic because there was such a language barrier for me (those Spanish classes didn’t work so well for me). The best things we could have brought along were our interpreters. I rely on them all the time. Mario Lopez, who was one of the interpreters for us, is a native of Guatemala so he not only understands their language but has a great ability to reach into their hearts as well.

We ended up seeing 50 patients in clinic throughout the week. The gratefulness the patients showed us was overwhelming. I knew that what our group would do for these people would forever change their lives and it would forever change mine.

On Sunday we spent the day planning our weeks schedule and organizing the upcoming cases the best we could. We felt that we had all our bases covered when we packed, but there was always that one item we didn’t have or wished we would have remembered to bring. I have never been so flexible or learned to improvise as much as I did there. There was no such thing as saying “I don’t have that” it was, “How can I make it with what I do have” and then the doctor would always say “that’s exactly what I wanted, that’s perfect.”

We started each day by having breakfast together and a group of 2 people doing a devotional and a prayer. This was my favorite time of day. You are starting out fresh with a good prayer under your belt to get you through who knows what. After that about 10-12 of us would pile in the van to be the first group of people to arrive at the hospital.

The hospital that we worked at was nice and maintained to the best of their ability. It was not as fancy or updated as our hospitals are, but it did have electricity, air conditioning, [sometimes]and running water. No toilet paper though. You had to bring your own. Their equipment was very antiquated and minimal. Items we were throwing out, they would recycle for themselves. These were items we would never think of reusing again. They truly make the best of and do the best with the limited resources they have.

They were so happy to see us when we were hauling our supplies in. It was like Christmas to them. They knew we would be donating our supplies to them after we were finished. It was such a good feeling to see how happy you could make someone.

We were able to use their nursing staff to help us get through the cases and help re-process our instruments. Their working with us gave them extra income because we paid them to help us. The nursing staff on the floor gets paid $7 per day, the surgical nurse gets paid $14 per day and the physician who helped round on patients for us got paid $100 per day. They were all worth their weight in gold.

Although there was a language barrier between me and the staff we were able to communicate with a nod of the head or just a smile to say thank you. They made me realize that my way is not necessarily always the right way. I was just very thankful for their help and support. We were even able to enjoy an evening out with them and the physicians. They normally don’t mingle together like we do here.

In total we performed 25 surgical cases. These were cases that probably never would have been done without us. We performed total hip and total knee replacements, ankle surgeries, knee arthroscopies and several hand surgeries. We did a bone grafting procedure on a woman who had a non-functioning arm for the last 3 years. We also did trauma surgery on a gentleman who had a distal femur fracture that day.

Every one of these patients thanked us from their heart and prayed for us. That’s all they had to give us, and that’s all we needed, their faith in us to help them.

Our days were long. We usually worked 12-14 hours a day. At dinner we would have time to reflect back on our day and try to come up with how to make tomorrow better. On Tuesday, we figured out how to focus their scope camera and by Wednesday, we knew we were on a roll when we figured out how to focus their only surgical light in the room. As a team, we learned to overcome every challenge we had and have a positive outcome. I think this trip changed everyone of us in one way or another.

If I had to pick only one thing that I loved best about the trip, I would have to choose waking up every day and knowing I get to do this all over again and to really know that I have made a difference in the world even if only for 50 people.

What I am grateful for after this experience is the fact that I went into a situation, scared and unknowing and was able to work with 17 of the most caring, compassionate and beautiful people that I will ever know. They all probably had the same fears I did, shared the same laughs I did, and missed their family and friends back home just like I did.

These individuals have all made an impact on my life in their own way. I will always treasure their friendship and the bond that we have shared. They helped make the long days and nights memorable. I have and always will trust them with my life. They will always hold a special place in my heart.

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely! It may not have been Las Vegas with my friend but it was better. Darlene Dibrito, RN