Guatemala medical mission touches volunteer in “real and raw way”

By Greg Mellen     4/4/2019

For Erik Wexler and P.K. Khurana, the images and emotions will linger. The village of San Sebastian is perched more than 7,500 feet above sea level. The spectacular Cuchumantes Mountains above Chicaman, Guatemala, provide unmatched natural beauty. But it is a backdrop to severe poverty, homes lacking electricity or running water, and families split apart as men journey far off in search of work. And, in spite of it all, Wexler witnessed the joy and innocence of the children and the spirit of the people.

This is just some of what Wexler, Khurana and a team of volunteers brought back from their eight-day mission to Guatemala.

“This certainly deepens faith,” Wexler said. “I felt I was closer to God, serving those in need.”

Wexler, chief executive of Providence St. Joseph Health, Southern California, and Khurana, Southern California region chief strategy officer, were part of a group of 18 executives from the Providence St. Joseph Health system who journeyed to villages to help residents improve hygiene and health practices.

Providence St. Joseph Health is a national, Catholic, not-for-profit health system of 119,000 caregivers. The system was founded by the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.

“We were there to help the Guatemalan people, particularly in the more remote areas, to live healthier happier lives,” Wexler said of the February trip.

This was the inaugural service trip to Guatemala for Providence in partnership with Medical Teams International to implement a maternal and child health program in 12 indigenous communities in the central highlands of Guatemala.

Providence also works with Faith in Practice, which coordinates medical and surgical teams for caregivers, and Guatemalan medical students who recently have rotated through Providence residency programs.

Wexler said Providence has been involved for years in aid to Central America, including El Salvador and Tijuana, Mexico.

Working side-by-side with villagers and members of the nonprofit Medical Teams International, the team built 27 latrines and hand washing stations, and provided education on cleanliness and food preparation for women villagers to share with their neighbors to help reduce diarrhea, malnutrition and respiratory illnesses that are leading causes of death for children under the age of two.

Wexler said after flying into Guatemala City, the team embarked on a grueling bus trip that took nine hours to travel 125 miles to Chicaman. From there the team climbed more than 6,000 feet in altitude to reach San Sebastian.

After villagers dug 10-foot deep holes for the latrines, the volunteer teams installed concrete floors and fiberglass structures. Wexler said they should last about three years. Also installed were basins and supplies for hand washing.

Wexler said the villagers are in desperate need of clean sources of water and survive off runoff water from the rainy season, which they store.

“When they run out, they walk for hours for water. It’s a very difficult lifestyle,” Wexler said.

As important as the buildings was the education. A group of community leaders, including mother counselors, was formed and taught to help provide health education to their community.

After the last day of work, there was a community celebration to thank the volunteers. Among the entertainment was singing by the children of both the Guatemalan and United States national anthems.

For Wexler, this was the first time he had participated in such a mission.

“I was my first time to do the whole immersion into mission work. It’s a very grounding experience,” he said. “You realize how much excess we have. It made me committed to go back. You almost feel guilt.”

Already, Wexler said he is planning to return to the Guatemalan village to help install stoves that will help reduce the lung diseases that arise from the cooking indoors over open pits.

In November, Wexler said he is going to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, as part of another aid giving mission.

Khurana was similarly impressed.

“It’s really eye opening,” Khurana said. “Every night we would reflect on our experiences, and inevitably everyone recognized that in the U.S. we live in abundance and have so much to share that we often take for granted the resources at our fingertips.”

The medical mission was about more than just providing help in a remote village. Wexler said it was transformational in a “very real and raw way.”

But in the face of such privation, Wexler saw hope in the village of mostly of Mayan heritage.

“There’s such beauty and innocence,” Wexler said. “The women’s council creates a promising future.”