“I was looking for a way to give back and learned about Healing The Children through one of my co-partners who serves on the organization’s board,” explains Pesio. “I had never been to Central America before and liked the idea of being able to travel somewhere different while at the same time having the opportunity to make a difference.”
Healing The Children, which was founded in 1979, is a well-known organization with 13 chapters across the U.S. It sends volunteer medical teams to help restore health to impoverished children and families around the world.
Currently, teams are working in parts of Africa, Central America and Asia. Pesio signed up for a team going to Guatemala last year and found the experience so rewarding that she returned again this past fall. Her medical peers, a group of 25, consisted of doctors, nurse practitioners, midwives, a medical resident and a medical student. There were also several support personnel that gave their time and energy to help with triage, computers, translating, pharmacy operations and lab work. The trip lasted 16 days and in that time, the group traveled to several villages on both the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean sides of the country. The villages were extremely rural and the conditions were primitive.
“Agua Caliente and Boqueron are two villages that Healing The Children serves every six months,” says Pesio. “Agua Caliente has about 1,000 people and Boqueron has about fifty households of 5-15 people in each. Housing is constructed out of wooden sticks with corrugated steel roofs. The villages consist of Mayan Indians who were displaced from their homes in the early 1800s by the Guatemalan war. The people speak Q’eqchi and some of the leaders speak some Spanish.”
Pesio explains that the men of the village leave for three to four weeks at a time to work on large farms and ranches. Residents subsist mostly on fruits and vegetables that they raise on their own and eat meat only one or two times a month. The animals they raise are for selling, not for eating. Water comes from three springs and the few latrines in existence are made of cement with wood on top. In much of rural Guatemala, the women cook over open fires located in the home. The smoke from these fires is problematic, as it causes many of the respiratory problems inherent in the population.
“Other types of common problems that we see include parasites from unclean water,” notes Pesio. “The people also complain of headaches, which are due to dehydration. And then there are stomach issues that often come from a diet that is very low in protein and high in carbs. Additionally, many of the people have terrible teeth from all the soda they drink. Another problem that we’re seeing is an increasing trend in cervical cancers. This stems from the men, who have multiple sexual partners, as they are gone from the home for such lengthy periods of time.”
At each village, the team would set up its mobile clinic, often in the local school, where exam rooms were set up with ropes and sheets to divide large classrooms into individual spaces. Volunteers saw close to 100 people, of all ages, per day, using interpreters to communicate essential information. According to Pesio, sometimes this process got complicated. “With the Mayan dialect, you need two sets of translators,” she says. “And at times, you didn’t know if what you said was being conveyed accurately, especially directions about taking medications.” In addition to primitive conditions and the remote jungle locations, which entailed lengthy, arduous journeys on rough, steep roads, another challenge for the team was the weather. The country was in the middle of its rainy season and temps were near 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity.
“We needed fans while we worked otherwise we’d pass out,” adds Pesio. “At night, however, there were these amazing storms, thunder, lightning and torrential downpours.”
Pesio spent most of her time working in the pharmacy/dispensary and enjoyed organizing and preparing the prescriptions, as well as interacting with the villagers. Often, she would have groups of children and adults just watching her cut up pills, as they seemed fascinated by the task. She also did some gynecological and primary care exams. One of the most rewarding activities for Pesio was supplying reading glasses to those in need. “Watching their faces light up when they realize they don’t have to give up doing their fine needle work or their carving was such a treat,” she remarks. “That brought smiles to every face.” She adds, “The people are so appreciative of our efforts. Most of them come up to you and give you hugs and they’re always expressing their gratitude and thanks. The Guatemalans are very kind and loving – very generous people. Change isn’t easy for them and getting them to accept certain medical practices is a challenge. Sometimes they follow through and get in the habit of taking their medicine, especially the diabetics and those with hypertension. Others don’t. You do what you can and hope for the best.”
Pesio’s goal is to eventually become a liaison between the shamans or village medicine men and the Western physicians. She wants to better understand their traditions and ways of thinking, as well as have the opportunity to explain the rationale for the actions taken by the visiting American medical professionals. All of the medications and supplies that Healing The Children teams provide are donated and volunteers pay for their own expenses.
“My patients donated generously,” comments Pesio. “They gave money to the organization and all sorts of over-the-counter medicine, such as pain relievers and antacids, which I brought with me.”
Pesio plans to return to Guatemala with Healing The Children, though first she is going to Mexico to attend a shamanic workshop for the end of the Mayan calendar. “I’ll be back to Guatemala for sure,” she says. “I love the people and it’s such satisfying work. The need is so great and I feel that I really can make a difference, one person at a time.”