Medical missions provide relief in Central America
By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa
September 2013: One church-based group went to Honduras, while a group of healthcare workers and medical students focused their efforts in Guatemala. But both Toledo-based medical missions provided some much-needed relief in Central America, where the picture of poverty remains grim.
47-year old Rachel (Ruiz) Schneider traveled to Choluteca, Honduras, with fellow members of her congregation from Cedar Creek Church in Perrysburg, Ohio as well as a second church in Columbus. The August trip was her third relief mission to the village.
“We help them with a nutrition clinic. They make an outreach effort to have kids come in before and after school so we can share with them about hygiene, tap into what’s going on with malnutrition,” she explained. “We also share the Gospel with them, share God’s love for them.”
The Huntington Bank insurance executive could not believe the hunger-stricken children she encountered, let alone the resulting health problems the kids were suffering from extensive malnutrition, which she called “running rampant.”
“It’s impoverished. There are people actually living in shacks made with plastic,” she said. “The floors are dirt, with 12-by-12 rooms, if not smaller. Kids don’t have shoes. Moms can’t afford to feed their kids, their babies’ milk. So they’re watering it down and their stomachs get bloated.”
HIV-related infections also are running at an all-time high. Cedar Creek Church partners with an HIV orphanage to help care for young ones or arrange for family members to help with their care.
“It breaks my heart every time I go down there,” she said. “It also heightens my senses for things around here when I come back. I just want to reflect God’s love when I’m down there. Some of these people feel like they’ve just been forgotten.”
The Cedar Creek mission team spent nearly two weeks in Honduras between July 25 and Aug. 5. While any of the team members could have been on a beach in Cancun, Aruba, or elsewhere during a vacation—Ms. Scheider called it an important trip all its own.
“It’s like going back to help my family,” she said. “From my heritage, I know the things my father sacrificed for me and I never want to forget that.”
Her family immigrated from Mexico and she is a second-generation daughter of a migrant farm worker who grew up in East Toledo.
“I used to think that one person couldn’t possibly do anything, but every little bit helps,” she said. “Knowing I had people alongside of me that have that same, genuine passion to show God’s love is what it’s all about. Together, it’s for the greater cause.”
While Ms. Schneider definitely plans to go back, it didn’t require any special training to show kids proper hygiene and nutrition.
“I guess just being a mother gives you what it takes to show love for a child,” she said. “Whether you’re going to a Third World country like Honduras or here in your own community, just don’t forget that there are people looking for hope, feel like God has forgotten them, and just want some respect and something to look forward to. Hope and love are what everybody needs.”
Constructing a home…and hope
53-year old Todd Sabo served as the team leader for the group of 16 people who went to Honduras—the eighth time he’s served in that role. He was asked to lead a team right after serving in Honduras the first time as a new church member in his mid-40s. That mission experience changed his life.
But he called this trip “more focused” than any of the others, because the group built two homes where there was simply dirt before their arrival. Sabo called it a near-miracle, “especially when you consider the tools we had to use.”
“On the second-to-last day, we finally got a generator and we were able to use one power saw,” he said with a laugh. “It’s awesome. If you don’t have a ladder, the people there put tree branches together and make a ladder. The ingenuity they showed while working in that environment.”
The Start High School health education teacher helps build homes in the summertime. He stated the situation in Honduras is not much different than some families face locally.
“They would not believe what they are seeing down there, but if we look closely enough at our own communities, it’s the same thing,” he said.
Guatemala village becomes an annual destination
This year’s medical mission trip to Guatemala was the 13th trip there and the 52nd such relief trip over two decades for Dr. Richard Paat, who has served all over the world and taken his wife and three grown children on multiple trips to help others. It was also the fifth such trip in just under a year. More than half of those medical mission trips have been to Central America. He leads a team every spring break to Honduras as well.
“We go back every year and try to make a difference,” he said. “We try to go back to the same communities.”
The Guatemala trips started at the request of St. John’s Jesuit High School, which sends teams of students each year to rebuild homes. The groups travel to a mountainous region where a dozen villages, named after the 12 Biblical apostles, are located around the deepest freshwater lake in the country— and also near three inactive volcanoes.
There is a Catholic parish located at St. Luke, the village the medical mission team centers its operations. Father Greg Schaefer was assigned to be the parish priest for two years in the 1970’s, but stayed more nearly fifty years until his death in 2012. He walked from Minnesota to Guatemala to take the assignment.
“He lived through the civil war years and is beloved by the community,” said Dr. Paat of his late friend. “He built a great community to help people. He also built a mission community for people who wanted to come in and help. So that’s where we’ve been going to for the past 13 years.”
After 50-plus medical missions, Dr. Paat stated it never gets old. The soft-spoken physician called it important to return to where relationships have developed over time.
“Each one is different. Each one is fun,” he said. “It’s nice to go back to the same place because you feel like you can make a difference if you keep going back to the same place and help improve the health of the community.”
This time the group set up five mobile clinics in the mountains for people from the Mayan Indian villages. They speak a dialect that must be translated into Spanish, then English. Every person is treated for worms, under the assumption they suffer some sort of parasitic infection. Multi-vitamins also are distributed and growth curves conducted because each child is malnourished.
The medical group treated everything from bronchitis and pneumonia to diabetes and hypertension. Physical therapists were on hand to help with muscle-related maladies and pharmacists helped distribute needed medications.
“It’s a teaching mission for our students,” he said. “But it’s also a service mission.”
The overall health of those communities has improved over time. The medical mission team used to see 1,500 patients per trip—a number that has been cut in half this year. There is a permanent clinic now set up to see patients, but many must walk more than two hours from their native village to see a doctor.
“The area is very poor. They struggle to make a living,” he explained. “They’re like anyplace else. The father and wife want a safe place to raise a family. They want their kids to be educated. They’re hard-working people. They’re friendly people.”
Dr. Paat spent part of the week training what he called “health promoters,” native villagers who could then treat minor injuries and conditions. He showed a handful of adult women how to suture a large cut. He also taught them how to take blood pressure and deliver babies.
“Even after we leave, we try to make a difference,” he said.
Dr. Paat estimated his medical mission teams have treated 12,000 patients in Guatemala over the past 13 trips.
Dr. Paat, 52, was inducted earlier this year into the University of Toledo’s Medical Mission Hall of Fame. His medical missions have included not only trips to the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Haiti, but also relief efforts in the United States, including in response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.
Last year, the 1986 MCO graduate established a free medical clinic in Perrysburg Heights, providing treatment to approximately 1,000 low-income Hispanic residents.
Dr. Paat also serves as the volunteer medical director for International Services of Hope (ISOH-IMPACT), a faith-based group that provides free surgical care for children of poverty from other nations. He was named Catholic Doctor of the Year in 2010 by the Mission Doctors Association.
A native Guatemalan goes home
47-year old Liz Villarreal served as the translator and logistics contact in her native Guatemala for the team of two dozen physicians, University of Toledo Medical Center (UTMC) students, and other healthcare workers during a week-long medical mission trip in late July. This was her sixth trip with the group.