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Little Rock church’s team performing hernia surgeries in Guatemala

by Frank E. Lockwood | July 22, 2023 at 7:31 a.m.
Members of a Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church medical team perform a hernia surgery in Guatemala. The Little Rock congregation has been organizing mission trips there for more than two decades. (Courtesy photo)

A surgical team organized by Little Rock's Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church headed to Guatemala on Friday to mend broken bodies and relieve suffering.

Over the next week, they'll be performing hernia operations in Chichicastenango, a city of 71,394 in the highlands, roughly three to four hours north of the nation's capital, Guatemala City.

"They're lovely people. They're always so gracious and they're so glad that we're there," said Denise Johnson, a registered nurse and the surgical team leader.

Located in El Quiche Department, Chichicastenango is 6,447 feet above sea level, roughly 25 miles north of Lake Atitlan. Nearly all of the population is of Mayan descent; the predominant language is K'iche'.

The town is in the country's coffee growing region. Crops thrive in the rich volcanic soil.

"Some of the biggest vegetables I've ever seen in my life were in Guatemala -- carrots as big around as your fist," Johnson said.

Many of the patients are farm workers and are typically short in stature, she said.

"[They] carry everything on their backs and live in the mountains, and they don't have donkeys or cars, and so they get a lot of hernias," she said.

It's a condition, mission coordinator Emily Erkel said, that can be debilitating.

"If you have a hernia, you're in so much pain that you can't work," she said. "Having a hernia surgery returns you to being a productive member of both your family and your community."

This year's team includes three surgeons, four anesthesiologists or nurse anesthetists, seven registered nurses, two medical students and two other volunteers, Erkel said.

Most years, the Pulaski Heights team also includes an eye surgeon, who spends his time performing cataract surgeries.

Guatemala is one of the western hemisphere's poorest nations; roughly 80% of its Indigenous people live in poverty; malnutrition is also prevalent, according to the United Nations.

The country has long been a Catholic stronghold, but evangelicals have made tremendous inroads in recent decades, particularly Pentecostals. The percentage of Guatemalans who identify as Methodist is small -- two-tenths of 1%, according to one recent survey.

Pulaski Heights sent its first medical team to Guatemala in 2001. Initially, they traveled from village to village, sometimes setting up shop in churches or homes, a town square and even a barber shop.

In 2009, the church began sending surgical teams as well.

The medical outreach was ongoing for nearly two decades.

Typically, two groups would make the journey -- one surgical, the other medical and dental. Covid-19 derailed the travel in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

"This will be our first trip back since the pandemic," Erkel said.

Participants pay for their own travel. The church worked to raise money to pay for customs and baggage fees, interpreters, medication, surgical supplies and anesthesia.

Team members take many of the supplies with them.

They're also taking "Get Well Soon" cards for the patients that were made by some of Pulaski Heights' grade school-aged Sunday School students.

The congregation works with Project Salud y Paz (Spanish for "health and peace"), a nonprofit group that has established medical and dental clinics in three locations as well as a school, Colegio Susanna Wesley, named for the mother of John and Charles Wesley, English clergymen who helped launch the worldwide spiritual movement now known as Methodism.

Dr. Jim Muller, a Little Rock pilot and anesthesiology specialist who has served on Pulaski Heights' surgical team, donated anesthesia machines, a cautery machine and monitors and got them to Guatemala, enabling Salud y Paz to expand its efforts there, the organization said.

In 2019, the Pulaski Heights teams performed 68 hernia operations and 52 cataract surgeries, Johnson, the surgical team leader, said.

  photo  Chichicastenango, a city of 71,394 in the Guatemalan highlands, is the destination for a team of medical professionals organized by a Little Rock church. (Courtesy photo)

Print Headline: Church sending medical team to Guatemala


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