Stories from the Field: Clínica Tzanabaj (San Pablo, Guatemala)

by Deborah Flores, RN, Ed.D, MBA E-mail

Lake Atitlan is a large lake approximately 340 meters deep, situated in the Guatemalan highlands. It is flanked by several volcanoes and surrounded by towns and villages inhabited by descendents of Mayan people. They are proud and strong people. The lake itself is one of the most beautiful in the world.

This lake supports coffee and farm crops. Most of the indigenous population survives on very little money as they make a living from the land. The lake is a major life force in their lives. There is cyclical contamination from fertilizer run off, etc. which leads to bouts of cyanobacteria in the lake.

Although the weather is temperate, the rainy season brings mudslides and flooding, which has been known to destroy homes, commercial property and lives.

There are several small hospitals around the lake; one is public, and the others are private. There are also many clinics which provide basic medical and dental care. These are supported by churches and/or by locals, and some of these are private as well. Providers are predominately volunteers who either come in to the area from Guatemala City or are on short assignments from US, Europe or other parts of Central or South America. Much of the equipment is donated either through medical companies or churches. This in itself can be a challenge.

In December 2010, my husband, a general surgeon practicing in the US, decided to retire from medicine. He is from Guatemala, and for many years has desired to return there. He has always been drawn to the lake area, as so many people are. He decided we could contribute if we opened a health center to care for the people, because basic healthcare needs are difficult to meet. For example, basic dental care is in great need, infants suffer from dehydration and the women suffer from early respiratory disease due to cooking over an open fire that often is not vented properly.

After much deliberation and planning, the clinic is now being built in San Pablo, a town with inadequate water and sewage systems.

Most children get a basic education but seldom leave the lake area. It is a closed community and very difficult to earn people’s trust.

We hired approximately 50 local workers and, with the help of a family member who is an engineer and architect, the workers were taught how to create and build using the earth underneath them. All of the materials are made on site, and rock is hauled from the riverbed to use for the rest of the structures. These men have acquired skills that they will now be able to use for the rest of their lives, hopefully to gain future employment after the project is complete. At this writing, this site has been under construction for over two years. The project itself has had an economic impact on the community, as it is the largest construction project that has ever been implemented in San Pablo.

Before breaking ground, a shaman blessed the land, as this was very important to the local workers. We then joined a local parade to advertise the coming clinic. Our workers started a soccer team for “Clínica Tzanabaj” and wear special shirts to denote who they are. We will continue to find ways to advertise the facility, but in reality, you cannot miss it driving through the area between San Pablo and San Marcos.

Until the clinic is finished, my husband travels from town to town to assist with surgeries as needed. When the clinic is complete, I will join him there to provide primary care. We hope in this way we have been able to impact our world far more than if we had stayed in the US and continued to provide care.

Deborah Flores will be joining the faculty of Research School of Nursing, which is affiliated with Rockhurst Univerisity.  Her husband is a general surgeon who retired early and is providing free care in Central America, and she joins him every few months to assist.

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