I arrived in Guatemala in 1976 with the second load of Plenty volunteers brought down in the Scenicruiser (a refurbished split-level Greyhound bus). I was truly overwhelmed by the beauty of the land and the people: their handwoven clothing, each village with its own colors and designs, the women’s long black hair in braids woven with satin ribbon. It made our manufactured western clothing seem lifeless in comparison. The women I got to know had a down to earth grace and naturalness. I watched them weave their beautiful huipiles, kneeling on a straw mat on the ground in the yard and using a backstrap loom. I fell in love with these people who had so little and yet made their lives so full of beauty.
When we first arrived in San Andrés Itzapa after the devastating earthquake in 1976, we were welcomed by everyone, indigenous and Ladino. Everyone had lost family in the earthquake and it was a great leveler of wealth and opened everyone’s hearts. Bit by bit as Itzapa got rebuilt, it became clear that the wealth of the town was concentrated in a few families of Ladino descent, and the Maya pretty much lived hand to mouth with very little.
We were naturally drawn to help them improve their standard of living, to have clean water, outhouses, access to medical care, and more protein in their diet. As we whole-heartedly plunged into this work, I began to feel the eyes of the family who owned the pharmacy and other wealthy families watching us with distrust. The village had been rebuilt; what were we still doing there? Why were we helping the indígenas? I had been completely ignorant of the politics and status quo of Guatemala and it was becoming increasingly obvious.
While I loved the beauty and purity of the lives of the Maya, the reality of their hardships soon came crashing into focus. We began to work with the nurse-midwife, Etta, who ran the Puesto de Salud (health post) in Itzapa. Ellen Martin, one of the first Farm women to arrive, had given Etta a copy of Spiritual Midwifery (classic book on home birth by Ina May Gaskin) and Etta loved our respect and caring for women and childbirth. She welcomed us with open arms and appreciated any help we could give as she was very understaffed, pretty much a one woman show. We sorted through piles of medicines that had been donated to her clinic after the earthquake. Greg Lloyd and Krystyna Bargiel, lab technicians from the Farm, set up a small lab in Etta’s clinic and began to work there, mostly examining stool samples for parasites. It soon became obvious that living with multiple parasites was the reality for everyone.
This was a new experience for me — children dying.
As the local people began to notice us helping in the clinic, they started asking us to visit their homes to see people too sick to come into the clinic. The first small child that we were summoned for, Ortillia, was so debilitated from parasites that even after some weeks of care, living with us while we tried to nurse her to health, and making visits to a small hospital, she died. This was a new experience for me — children dying. Children died a lot in Guatemala, of preventable things like dehydration from diarrhea. When we began to do prenatal care for Itzapan women, we asked how many pregnancies they had had. Most had at least eight. How many living children? Most said, “Half.” I thought, “how can these women continue on so strong in the face of such tragedy in their lives? How can they not go crazy from grief?” I decided the answer must be that they couldn’t afford to go crazy, they had to take care of their families, or their other children would die.
Etta was also responsible for the health of the Maya in more remote little villages in the mountains as well as in Itzapa. She had no vehicle to visit these villages so these people were cut off from any medical help. We outfitted one of our vehicles as a mobile clinic and ambulance and began to take Etta to the remote villages high up called Chimachoy and Calderas.
Visits to these villages were like going to a land before time. Enveloped in clouds, amazingly steep fields on the sides of mountains, blue cabbages, stone and stick huts. Big-eyed women and children dressed in vivid colors. Some had never seen a white person and were afraid of us. We eventually installed CB radios in a few remote villages.
With the okay from the director of a government hospital in Antigua, we trained a promotor de salud (health promoter) in each village to provide care for things like dehydration, and we left them supplies. They could call us on the radio for emergencies and we would come up with the ambulance. Much later on, when we fully realized the hidden civil war that was going on in Guatemala, we were amazed that we had been allowed to install these radios.
One time we got called in the middle of the night to bring two little sisters to the hospital. They had high fevers and we found out later, typhoid fever. Usually we had to talk people into going to the hospital because to them it was where you went to die. And then the families couldn’t get the body of a deceased person out of the hospital because they didn’t have the official transportation. We took the little girls to the nearest big hospital in Antigua.
The next night the young parents knocked on our door frantic because one daughter had died and they wanted us to get the other one out. We took them to the hospital and I ran to the children’s room to see how the little girl was doing. She was thrashing around a bit, very hot, and hooked up to an IV. I ran around looking for a nurse or doctor and finally found a doctor. I brought him to look at the girl, telling him that her sister had died and asking what they were doing for her so that she didn’t die. It was amazing how we were able to throw our weight around because we were white Americans. He told me she was being given the appropriate antibiotic and that we just had to wait it out. I told her parents this and they must have accepted the idea of leaving her there, because the next thing I remember was getting her other daughter who had died earlier that day, so they could bring her home. In a small room on a cement table, the little girl’s naked body lay, and I helped her mother dress her in a little skirt and huipil she had brought. Her mother quickly and calmly dressed her, trying to get out of there as fast as possible before someone changed their mind about letting us take her.
During the drive to their home the mother and father were quiet the whole way. As we approached her neighborhood, I heard a high-pitched sound. I didn’t know what it was at first. Then her mother and father began to wail as well. I realized that they had waited until they felt safely home before letting themselves grieve. That sound was many voices wailing, all of the family and neighbors gathered together waiting for us. I stayed for a while at the wake and grieved with everyone. Death was such a reality in the lives of the families around us. The other sister died the next day.
It was easy to feel that we, who had experienced western medicine, knew more about medical things than the Maya. They had some strange ideas about the human body. They thought that parasitic roundworms, “lombrices,” were a part of anatomy that everyone was born with. They didn’t know about germs or the microscopic world. They thought some organs were in funny locations. We made some mistakes and had some humbling experiences.
A Franciscan monk, who stayed with us for a while, told us we should go help this family in Itzapa. He told us that a family was holding a wake for a teenage boy who hadn’t died yet! He was sitting up in a bed at the front of a room and family and neighbors piled in and wailed. He was quite conscious and it only seemed that he was having difficulty breathing, like an asthma attack.
We arrived and saw that this was indeed going on, and I was horrified. We thought that if we could take this boy into Behrhorst Clinic in the nearby town, he could get some asthma medication and didn’t need to die at all! However, when we proposed this to the mother, she adamantly refused to have her son moved. We tried to convince her that we would bring him back again soon, but it was useless, she refused. Thinking that maybe he would die from this asthma attack if we didn’t get him to help soon, we decided to whisk him away while his mother went out to do something. We were talking to him and breathing with him to try and relax him during the ride in. We no sooner got him to Behrhorst Clinic, then he had a seizure and lost consciousness and they couldn’t revive him. The Behrhorst Clinic told us we needed to take him to the big hospital in the capital. We realized our simple plan had gone terribly wrong.
The boy did revive at the big hospital, but he died a week later. We had to face his mother and bring her to the hospital to see him. It turned out that he had miliary tuberculosis, which is when the TB (tubercle bacillus) is so bad that it gets into your bloodstream and all over your body and there isn’t much that can be done. His mother had seen this sickness happen to her husband and another daughter, who both died. She and all her neighbors knew what he had. She forgave us.