|Prescott, Bunkis' assistant, helps Thai tsunami victims.
I’ve decided to write something a little different this week, we’ll be back to the Q&A format again next week, but this is Thanksgiving week, one of my favorite times of the year. This is a time to get together with family and to be thankful for all the blessings we enjoy in this great country of ours. No matter our religious affiliation or political creed, social status or age, all of us have much to be grateful for compared to many others in this world.
For years, I have travelled to Guatemala during this time of year to help those less fortunate than any of us. I took a team of other physicians (a general surgeon, gynecologist, ophthalmologist and a plastic surgery resident), nurses and a few lay people volunteers to a village in the northwest corner of the country, near the Mexican border, called Nuevo Progreso—an 8 hour bus ride (in a rickety, old yellow school bus) from Guatemala City, the last hour being over a narrow, winding dirt road.
The hospital was built by locals with supplies and funds donated by the Hospital de la Familia Foundation from San Francisco. Before I get to the specifics of such trips, I would like to say that many physicians do similar work at home and around the globe, yet rarely do such trips get reported in the press. Upon arriving in the small village, we would be greeted by a marimba band and firecrackers, as the town’s people would come out to great us. The hospital is a cinder block structure with a corrugated roof (can you imagine how loud the thunderstorms sounded inside each afternoon?)
(Above:) Photograph of the Hospital de la Familia
(Above:) Locals greeting medical volunteers
We lived on the hospital grounds and ate local foods, in a relatively Spartan environment. After a breakfast of papaya, beans, eggs and some coffee, we would start seeing patients and deciding who we could help and who we could not—a very difficult experience to say the least.
One year, I met a 4-year-old boy who had never walked, with a painful hip and fever. I noticed a mass over the side of his hip and decided to open the area to see what the cause of his problem was. We did not have X-Ray or laboratory facilities in this town and any specimens had to be sent back to Guatemala City by bus.
I was surprised to find a cheesy white material in the joint and did not know what it was. But a few days later, we found out that this youngster had TB in his hip joint. There was no way to help him further in Guatemala and I volunteered to take him home with me. He was treated at the Shriner’s Hospital in San Francisco and recovered over a six month period, at which time another team of volunteers brought him back to his village.
We would see patients or operate from about 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. each day for about ten days straight, and during this time, performed about 150 operations. The bulk of the patients were kids with a variety of birth defects or injuries. But in the early 80’s, while civil war raged in Guatemala, it was not unusual to see someone in fatigues come in for treatment of an injury, and we never asked which side they were on. We were there for the kids and neither side saw any advantage in harassing us. As a matter of fact, the government was quite helpful, expediting our trips through customs, providing us with the yellow school bus to bring us to Neuvo Progreso, and giving us armed guards for the journey.
(Above:) 30-year-old female, before and after a cleft lip repaired by Dr. Bunkis
Whenever we could, we did an adult patient as the first one for each trip – adults are more forgiving and we did not want to “test the system” on a malnourished 3 month old. A different group of volunteers went down to this village four times a year but in between, the hospital was run by the real heroes in this story, the nuns from Mexico and Spain, and the padre from Italy, who lived there permanently and have given their lives for the local people.
(Above:) Young child with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, repaired by Dr. Bunkis and shown here a week later when her sutures came out
(Above:) Foot of a 10-year-old boy, who has obviously never worn shoes, before and after a toe amputation by Dr. Bunkis
(Above:) Mayan family sitting outside the hospital clinic, hopeful to see the American doctors cure their child
At the end of the ten days of working there, we headed back to Guatemala City and fly home, fatigued, usually a few pounds lighter and as content as a person could possibly be. There is nothing more fulfilling than helping those in need.
And before I sign off, I’d also like to mention our registered nurse, Tracey Prescott and some of her escapades abroad to help others. Here in Orange County, Tracey helps patients with pre and post op care, injects fillers and Botox, does laser hair removal and skin resurfacing. But when time allows, she’s off helping other.
(Above:) Tracey Prescott, RN, in Thailand helping tsunami victims
(Above:) Tracey in Kenya, helping set up a clinic for Aids children
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