Why The Guatemalan Health Crisis Deserves Our Attention

I will never forget the feeling that tore through me, standing at the edge of a hospital bed at the Cobán Regional Hospital in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. In the bed, an infant child lay very still; too still for a toddler who should have an abundance of energy coursing through her young body. Instead, the suffering on her face betrayed experiences that should be well beyond her one or so years of life. Her parents forced smiles at their visitors through furrowed brows laced with worry and fear. In their eyes it was evident that the future held little hope or promise for them.

Sick children in the hospital is never an easy sight. But in that hospital in Guatemala, we learned of a despair that is far more widespread than that in any hospital we could enter here in Canada. Let me explain to you why.

Imagine for a minute that you have an infant child experiencing pain that you can’t take away, exhibiting symptoms that you don’t understand, and you realize you’re going to need expert intervention. What goes through your mind as you make the decision to seek medical attention? You realize something is wrong and you cannot give them what they need. Instinctively, you know that the hospital is the most logical place to find access to the necessary expertise, equipment, supplies, and medication to effect a cure for whatever may be plaguing your child.

BUT let’s further break down that thought process. Inherent in it are several expectations and assumptions. Firstly, there is the assumption that a hospital facility is available to you and that you have the means to travel to it. Next, it is expected that upon arriving at the hospital, there will be sufficient personnel available to triage and examine your child. Then there is the expectation that the doctor responsible for their care will be adequately trained and competent enough to observe the symptoms, connect them to possible causes, run the appropriate tests, determine the diagnosis, and see them through the course of treatment.

These are factors that we take for granted, but any one of them may mark the end of the help-seeking journey for a family in Guatemala. Regardless, let’s imagine for a moment that all of these conditions are met. You arrive at the hospital and you see a qualified doctor who arrives at an accurate diagnosis, and knows exactly how to administer treatment. But what if, at that point, the entire process came to a complete halt? What if determining a diagnosis was the extent of the treatment the hospital could offer your child?

What if determining a diagnosis was the extent of the treatment the hospital could offer your child?

They may admit your child or transfer them to a room or bed where they can be more comfortable, but the treatment process can go no further. No IV, no drugs, no surgery, no cure. The doctors know exactly WHAT to do, but they cannot DO it because there are not enough drugs. A crippling lack reaches even the simplest medications and conditions. How would you feel? Is there any combination of words that could adequately describe the hopelessness, fear, and despair that would arise?

In those beds in the hospital in Cobán, we witnessed children suffering with severe burns and injuries, bacterial pneumonia and other infections who could not receive treatments such as antibiotics or, in some cases, even adequate pain relief because there were not enough medications available. These families were living the nightmare I described above: their babies were sick and in pain, INSIDE of a hospital  and nothing could be done.

It is here that we learned the shocking fact that, for these reasons, hospitals in Guatemala are often regarded as a last resort; a place families bring their loved ones to die, rather than to be healed. For many, it is not “the most logical place to find access to the necessary expertise, equipment, supplies, and medication.” Rather, it is thought of as more of a final effort than the primary place to receive help. Even if a family is able to travel to a hospital and see a doctor, there is no guarantee the hospital will have the medication they need.

Here in Canada, that is unheard of and would be deemed completely unacceptable. The hospital for us is a trusted place where we expect, without even thinking, that the very reaches of the latest medical advances, technology, and medications will be applied to do everything possible to cure our loved ones. The idea that the treatment process would be so completely cut off due to lack of drugs is senseless, frustrating, and heart-wrenching.

We expect, without even thinking, that the very reaches of the latest medical advances, technology, and medications will be applied to do everything possible to cure our loved ones.

We take it for granted that prescriptions are passed around and drugs administered for every ailment that medicine has an answer for. Of the many hurdles one faces when dealing with serious illnesses, it doesn’t occur to us in North America, that a drug could exist, be a proven cure for the very condition that ails us, and yet be unavailable to us because the hospital just does not have any/enough.

To give one example, the antibiotic penicillin was discovered in 1928 and is still not always readily accessible for many health care facilities in Guatemala. Even daily vitamins are currently difficult to source in the country, and HLH works each year to send as many children’s multivitamins as possible to aid ministries working to provide for Guatemalan communities.

A Calgary mission team packing children’s multivitamins donated by HLH, to take to Guatemala as they are difficult to supply in the country

The realities of the health care system in Guatemala should shock us, unnerve us and anger us. The injustice of a child dying from a condition we have known how to cure for almost a century should be enraging. Senseless deaths occur daily, not due to lack of knowledge on the part of doctors nor to lack of a medical breakthrough, nor to lack of a developed drug proven safe and effective, but simply due to a shortage of the medication. This is the reality, and it deserves our attention. Each child fighting for their life against a disease we CAN cure deserves our attention. So let us pay attention. Let us fight for change. Let us refuse to be resigned to the injustices that rampage the lives of families and destroy futures in their infancy.

The mission of HLH is to increase accessibility to medications and supplies for healthcare facilities in Guatemala. If you are interested in hearing more about the work we are doing, or in connecting with us, you can visit our website, check out our instagram or facebook, or sign up to receive our newletters. If you would like to support us in our work, please donate here.

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