Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Doctors are accustomed to respect. But there is ordinary, plain-vanilla type respect and then there is awesome big-time respect. After clearing customs upon arrival in Guatemala City June 14, a medical team from Billings Deaconess Clinic was greeted in the airport by a first-class marimba band and a high state official, who gave a pedantic political speech welcoming the team to Guatemala.

The medical team was taken aback on its first day of work in rural Guatemala when a brass band greeted them at the hospital with the Star Spangled Banner. And even more surprised when the American flag was flown from the hospital’s single flagpole.

And then there was the acting mayor of the city of Coban, who provided lunch in a beautiful park in his city. An excellent marimba band provided music. The typical Mayan feast day meal of turkey soup, tamales, rice flour mush, spiced rice and an alcoholic drink made from corn was served by Mayans who had started cooking the meal at daybreak.

The medical team members were given certificates naming them as “Huespedes Distinguidos,” (distinguished guests) of Coban in honor of their status as the first large group of foreign medical people to visit the Guatemalan states of Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz.

And let’s not forget the opening ceremonies of the medical conferences. A military band played while a procession of military personnel in full dress uniforms carried the U.S. and Guatemalan flags. A children’s choir sang the national anthems of both countries.

One of the doctors commented, with some embarrassment, that if a group from Guatemala came to Montana they would probably be treated to little more than a fishing trip.It’s a tough lifeAfter walking through a Guatemalan town one day, Dr. Steve Kramer said that when you think of the Third World, Guatemala defines it.

But the doctors and nurses on this medical mission were never in any danger of being uncomfortable. When I first heard that this group was to treat some really needy people in rural Guatemala, I had visions of Billings doctors trading in their surgical instruments for machetes to hack their way through the jungle to reach villages made up of thatch covered dwellings.

We saw machetes, but we never had to use them. The first night was spent in the five-star Camino Real in Guatemala City. Then off early the next morning in an air-conditioned bus over the hilly, winding roads to the Park Hotel near the town of Santa Cruz.

I don’t know how many stars this hotel rates, but it’s the kind of place where most of us dream of staying while on vacation. Definitely no thatched huts here. The fireplace-equipped living room of the suite my wife and I stayed in looked out over a portion of the zoo maintained within the walled-in grounds of the hotel. Deer, ducks, geese and rabbits looked to me as if they were trying to keep dry from the frequent rains.

A peacock and roosters announced daybreak all too early. A nice restaurant kept us well fed. A well-stocked bar provided before dinner drinks after a hard day’s work.

The hotel grounds were covered with flowers and exotic plants that I could not begin to name.

A gymnasium provided those accustomed to exercise with machines of the type found in a well-equipped sports club. The only area I found in disrepair was the tennis courts, probably because with so many other interesting activities to occupy themselves, few guests had any interest in tennis.A tycoon’s hospitalityThe Billings medical team was invited to a coffee plantation one Thursday night, and I got to tag along. Forget Bill Gate’s famous home. This steel industrialist’s coffee plantation is beyond opulence. After walking a hundred yards or so on a path paralleling an artificial lagoon, we sat on freshly painted masonry bleachers facing a fountain. The fountain sprang to life with colored lights as the water danced to the rhythms of classical music. We were then led to a covered area where a feast was ready — fine beef steak cooked over a wood-stoked grill, rice, roasted corn on the cob, frijoles, salad and copious amounts of beer and wine.

I commented to our bus driver Arsenio that to keep this place running must take a mountain of money. He said, with his ever-present smile and without rancor: “Sure, they don’t pay the campasinos much of anything and this is how they spend it. There is little justice here.”

I liked talking to Arsenio. He kept my feet on the ground.Looking for miraclesI asked a 29-year-old patient from the far north part of Guatemala why he had come to Santa Cruz in Alta Verapaz to see a doctor? Were there no doctors where he lived? I asked him those questions because he had said that he traveled by foot, water and bus for many days to the centrally located Santa Cruz. “I heard on the radio that there were American doctors in Santa Cruz,” he said. It then dawned on me that many of the patients were expecting “American” miracles. There were no miracles on this trip. Miracles, it seems to me, will only come when Guatemalan politics, attitudes and resources are focused unselfishly on helping all people in the country, not just the few.Americans as targetsGuatemalans signed a peace treaty among themselves in 1996, so our group felt little fear of disastrous physical violence from soldiers or rebels. But that didn’t mean we weren’t targets.

One doctor ignored repeated pleas that we remain a group and not wander off by ourselves. Alone, he was reading a menu in the foyer of a restaurant when three men pointed out some stains on his pants. They nicely offered to help clean him up in the restaurant’s bathroom. As they so sweetly cleaned his pants, they slickly unzipped the small pack he wore facing forward. Those three sweet hoodlums ended up with his cash and credit card. The doctor made a cell phone call to his wife within an hour. She informed the credit card company. A couple of days later, she reported back that there were suspicious charges made to the card.

Undeterred, the fearless doctor continued to wander off alone to see for himself what was just around the next corner.

Microbes also made us targets. Four in our group suffered to varying degrees from the ailment that frequently attacks visitors to areas where water and food can be less than clean. My wife and I could not resist a street vendor’s tostada. Many in our group ate ice cream and other treats. My wife and I didn’t get sick, but those who did treated themselves with proper medications and were in good shape in less than 24 hours. It helps to be traveling with doctors.The central questionDid this group of Billings medical people do any good for the Guatemalans they came to help? I asked many of them that question. For the most part they felt they had little effect. The most good may have been societal.

Patricia Boschini, the stateside organizer of this medical mission, told me that the association sponsoring the trip needs help establishing its credibility. “Woman, Pillar of Society” is largely run by women. Guatemalan men control resources and political power in Guatemala, she said, and they mostly believe that women are not capable of effectively organizing efforts to help improve the health of country people. That kind of attitude, she said, makes it difficult to raise funds.

If a Guatemalan man were to ask me if the women running the association are effective organizers, I would tell him to relinquish his wealth and power to these women to help this Central American nation join the ranks of the developed.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.