March 15, 2013

Guatemala: An Unlikely Private Practice

Every Friday, local women line up at the administration building of the largest garbage dump in Central America to receive free medical care and spiritual support.

  • Basic Needs

    The medical clinic moved into the dump administration building in order to provide easier access for people needing medical treatment.

  • Calling

    Dr. Hernandez felt called at an early age to help the needy people of Guatemala. She calls this clinic her first "private practice."

  • Treasured

    Dr. Hernandez is intentional about hugging and praying for each patient, showing them that they are loved and valued by Christ.

  • Patients

    Most of the patients are single women raising children on their own, abandoned by husbands and boyfriends caught up in alcohol addiction.

  • Great Care

    Nurse Candelaua Alvarado cares for women who receive treatment for issues such as bronchitis and upper respiratory problems that develop due to working at the dump.

  • Pharmacy

    Volunteer Mirna Reyes helps in the makeshift pharmacy, set up in the narrow hallway just outside the clinic’s examination room.

Tears immediately filled her eyes as Dr. Lucretia de Hernandez spoke passionately about what she called her first private practice in Guatemala City.

Now located off a dusty road frequented by diesel trucks and pedestrians carrying large loads, her clinic office is in the front room of the administration building of the largest city dump in Central America. Her patients scavenge through the trash each day looking for recyclable items to sell.

“I was the exception to the exception of all Guatemalan women,” Hernandez said, explaining that she grew up in a very privileged home, received a great education, and was presented with a lot of opportunities for success. “But I feel I’ve always had a heart for the poor.”

When she was just out of high school, Hernandez wanted to leave the city and work on a project in a rural part of Guatemala. Her mother told her that she should first get her education so she would really be able to help people. After completing medical school, Hernandez was required to complete a six-month rotation in a rural town in Guatemala. This opened her eyes to the needs of the poor, and she knew that she wanted to use her life and skills to benefit the lives of the poor in her country.

After medical school in Guatemala, her studies took her to the United States. While Hernandez completed her Ph.D. studies, her husband became a pediatric surgeon. They were both urged to stay in the States to establish meaningful careers, but  Hernandez knew that they needed to go back to Guatemala to serve their own people. “There are so many Ph.D.s in the States — I am the only Ph.D. in Guatemala!” she said. “There are so many pediatric surgeons in the States — Guatemala only has two or three! I knew we could do a lot more at home than if we stayed in the States.”

A few months after they returned from their studies in the United States, Dr. Hernandez was asked to give a Bible class at Casa del Alfarero (Potter’s House). She was excited to teach the Bible, but when the attendees found out she was a doctor, they would line up after the study to ask her questions about their health. The need for a medical clinic that was accessible to the residents of the communities around the dump was evident, so about four years later a small clinic was opened at Potter’s House. Hernandez saw this as her private practice. “This is why I went to medical school!” she said.

A Tough Life for Women

Mostly women were lined up outside the door of the one room clinic when Dr. Hernandez arrived Friday morning. The makeshift pharmacy directly across from the chairs lining the wall made it hard to pass through the narrow hallway.  The smell of oil and gasoline lingered in air, a sharp contrast to the expected sterile air of other clinics. Usually these women are all by themselves in life, raising kids alone and being abused by men who aren’t even their husbands.

In a culture that relies on the “daily catch,” as Dr. Hernandez describes it, the sacrifice of visiting the clinic can be great. “Whatever they find that day, that is what they live off of,” she said. Each truck that comes into the dump has a number, and each person is given the rights to dig through a specific truck’s trash that day. If their truck arrives at the dump while they are sitting in the waiting area, patients will usually forego their place in line and go dig through the fresh trash. Dr. Hernandez knows this and respects the needs of each of her patients. If she is able to, she will wait until the patients can come back so they can still receive medical attention, without having to spend what little money they make from the recyclables they find.

Dr. Hernandez identified the major health issues she sees facing these women: skin infections, urinary tract infections, GI infections, upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, women’s health issues, and pregnancy. Addressing these medical needs is important to Dr. Hernandez, but she also includes an educational element to each visit.

“Women in Guatemala don’t see their own health as important because they have been neglected all of their lives,” said Dr. Hernandez. Showing them the importance of taking care of themselves has intrinsic value and helps break down the lies of worthlessness that many of them face. Part of that is as simple as the hug Hernandez intentionally gives each of her patients as a way to show she cares for them.

It’s also about Spiritual Health

Hernandez knows that caring for the physical body is only half of the calling she accepted. While it is important to keep women healthy so that they can continue to do their daily work, it is just as important to make sure that they are being cared for spiritually.

At the other end of the hallway, in a larger empty room a Bible is sitting on a table between two people bowed in prayer. Along with a doctor, the clinic has a Personal Development Coordinator on location. Hernandez knows that this time is just as valuable as the time that the patients spend in her office. “I cannot take a lot of time with each patient, but I can pray a little with each one and also encourage them to open their hearts with the person that is doing personal development,” she said.

Hernandez takes home a journal with each prayer request from her patients written down in detail. “When I’m home in my kitchen with my kids, I remember them in prayer,” she said.

“I know in my heart that what is really needed the most here is for people to know the Lord—for people to give their life to the Lord and be willing to change,” said Hernandez. “I really hope that when they walk out of here, they have seen something of what Jesus wants for them. . .and I just pray that I have been a part of all that God wants for them.”

-Written by Robert Johnson
-Photographed by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]

Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons