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Surgicorps Guatemala 2019: Seamless Humanitarian Integration – In the words of team member, Patricia Ferrer, PA-C

Being part of the Surgicorps International 2019 Guatemala team felt like being with my family. We are a group of medical professionals sharing a common goal: to care for those without access to surgical and medical healthcare. Without knowing anyone on the team it seems we all knew each other, found our positions, and got to work. It was a week of seamless integration and collaboration with the Obras Sociales hospital team. As the days rolled on everyone smoothly found the void they could fill to yield the best outcomes, naturally. 

Sunday was screening day and the waiting area was packed with triaged patients to be examined by our surgical specialties: general, hand, gynecology, and plastics. The surgical candidates were identified and respectively scheduled for the week by our trip coordinator, Stephanie and her son Dylan.

‘Seamless’ describes working with the Obras Sociales hospital team. They received our group as if we’d been there for years: they knew our positions/places and theirs with little said. The patients were calm and prepared for surgery and cared for compassionately by their and our recovery room staff.

My first two days were spent with plastic surgeon Dr. Carlos Mata in the OR as he separated fingers (syndactyly), removed extra fingers (polydactyly), and repaired cleft lips. On Wednesday Stephanie asked me to join Dr. Bob Schemmer, a Canadian Dermatologist, in his clinic as his patient load was increasing daily. As a dermatology PA this was my comfort zone and we were able to see more patients and keep a flow going while also documenting in the hospital’s EHR system, in Spanish. With hospital RN Sylvia, the 3 of us worked well together. 

On Thursday, our dermatology clinic ended at 2pm and Dr. Schemmer recommended we go to Obras Sociales auxiliary hospital for disabilities, where wheelchair bound children and adults resided due to various life-long disabilities (cerebral palsy, microcephaly, etc). The hospital arranged transportation and took us directly to the facility.

Photo: Entrance to Virgen del Socorro Hogar.

Virgen del Socorro Hogar de Niños y Adultos Especiales was on the edge of Antigua surrounded by beautiful lush green-belts. The buildings are 2 years new and in the typical Central American-Spanish colonial style with thick walls and central atriums and every area lit with natural lighting. The medical director took us on a tour and notified each floor to prepare any patients in need of dermatology care. Again, ‘seamlessly’ we went to each floor (they were divided by gender and age groups: babies and toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and elders), saw many common dermatitides, made our recommendations and kept moving. The ‘hogar’ was so clean and had a homey feel, the staff was attentive and caring and the medical director seemed to be a mother to all.  They have 240 residents and more than 300 employees and  6 full-time rotating doctors. I wondered if we had such a place equal in the US, as this was one of the most beautiful and peaceful health institutions I’ve ever seen.

Photo: One of several classrooms. 

Photos: All buildings had a central atrium.

Photo: Walkway between buildings. 

My single most pleasant experience was with a 59 year-old healthy female patient that presented with a 7 year history of pigmented brown macules on her lower lip, finger tips, bottom of her feet and dark streaking of a few toenails. Clinically this looked ominous but with close evaluation something did not make sense. We informed her to return 2 days later to biopsy a couple of the most suspicious lesions to rule out cancer (we suspected metastatic melanoma but her healthy disposition ruled against this). This bought me time to research and consult with a US dermatology colleague and we were able to pin the diagnosis: Laugier-Hunziker Syndrome, a rare benign condition in which  no treatment is warranted. Two days later the patient returned with her daughter and we informed them of the good news and gave them literature describing the condition. They were tearfully grateful this was not grave and they had an answer. Their relief, ‘bendigas’, and ‘muchisimas gracias’, swelled my heart with joy and felt we served them well.

Photo: Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro surgical staff.

The week closed with both US/Guatemalan teams showing appreciation and support and gratitude shown by all patients and their families. I left with the satisfaction of being part of a humanitarian family from two different parts of the world. In the end, we the givers, are the receivers.

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