Saturday, January 22, 2011

Changing Lives, One Patient at a Time

Sunday January 10th – Monday, January 11th, 2011. Comunidad de Ruiz, San Juan, Sacatepequez, Guatemala. On Saturday, January 9th, a 17-person team of surgeons, nurses, operating room technicians, translators and support staff - calling themselves Team Renova – walked out of Guatemala City International Airport. Upon arrival, they were met by Partner for Surgery (PfS) staff members Christine Record and Felipe Sutantri and shuttled northwest to the complex of facilities we commonly refer to as the Centro de Salud Bárbara (CSB) – a modern surgical center and a pre- and post-operative residence facility for patients and their families located in this small town on the outskirts of San Juan. PfS jointly shares and operates the surgical center at CSB with our Guatemalan partner organizations Compañero en Salud (CenS) and Asociación Compañro para Cirugía (ACPC). At about the same time as the surgical team was arriving, so too were 67 surgical candidates who had been identified during our rural medical “triage” missions over the last several months. In addition to the patients themselves, in most cases entire families made the journey together in support of their ailing loved one. Men, woman and children of all ages traveled up to eight or more hours in search of the life changing, sometimes life-saving surgery that the volunteer surgical team can provide. Yesterday (Sunday, January 10th), I made the hour long trip from Antigua to the CSB.

One of the patients that immediately caught my eye was Lucia Pop, a 16 year old girl who was here at the CSB for the second time. She’d traveled the over 180 kilometer, eight hour journey with her parents in November 2010, but was turned down because the reconstructive facial surgery she needed was beyond the expertise of the team of volunteer surgeons who staffed that mission. November’s surgical mission had been organized by Dr. Joseph Giordano. Recently retired, Dr. Joe had worked as Emergency Room Director, and more recently Chief of Surgery, at The George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, DC. One of the organizers of Team Renova, Dr. Philip Iorianni had trained under Dr. Giordano, and Doctor Phil was determined to deliver the surgical care that Lucia needed and so desperately desired.
As a result of a condition that first presented when she was a week old, Lucia arrived Saturday with what looked like a severely swollen black left eye. In fact, she had a naturally occurring sac of blood corpuscles under the eye – a disfiguring condition that worsens if untreated, but which could have routinely been corrected when she was a small child. Unfortunately, access to routine medical care for those who live in remote areas of this nation, not to mention the specialized care Lucia needed, is in nearly all instances a non-existent luxury.

While her parents had accompanied her in November, on Saturday, Lucia had to travel the eight hours alone because her mother went into labor as they were preparing to leave. So, unable to speak a word of Spanish (she is from an area where the Mayan dialect of Keachí is spoken) she set off alone, determined to break free of a condition that, according to Lucia, caused great shame, often kept her out of school, and isolated her inside her home and away from friends. Essentially, it was robbing her of the childhood she deserved. Upon her arrival, Lucia reported that her condition made her “feel ugly,” and that she was depressed and sad about the way she looked. “Before I learned I could receive treatment,” she said, “I did not want to go on living with my face like this.”

On Monday morning, I had the privilege of speaking with Lucia, through two interpreters, just a short time after she had been wheeled out of surgery into the recovery room. According to Dr. Iorianni, the surgery was a smashing success. Check back to this site in the coming days to see post-operative pictures of Lucia and an interview with Dr. Iorianni. (Brian Carome is Director of US Operations at Partner for Surgery, a not-for-profit organization based in McLean, VA and operating in Guatemala.)

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