Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Rohloff, spends two weeks per month in Guatemala and the rest of his days teaching at Harvard Medical School, working the night shift at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, writing articles and reading books. Busy? We think not! We asked him for a little reflection every time he leaves Guatemala, and so ‘Peter from the Plane’ was born.
Entry #2: September 2015.
It was my birthday a couple weeks ago, so I took a day off from regular activities to commemorate the nearly 15 years I’ve spent working in Guatemala.
It was a nice time to connect with old friends, many of whom are also patients, and spend time with staff members who work so hard to keep this complex, crazy institution running smoothly.
We began the day early in the morning with a Mayan ceremony in the ruins of Iximché, the seat of the old Kaqchikel Maya empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. It is a really beautiful place, especially early in the morning when temperatures are cool and the wildlife is out. It was a small group, including a contingent of leaders from Santiago Sacatepéquez who were so instrumental in getting Wuqu’ Kawoq off the ground all those years ago, as well as staff from our Tecpán office and many of our great student volunteers and interns.
It was a pleasure to participate in this ceremony, the first I’ve had the opportunity to attend in several months. Participating in this practice always reminds me why we started Wuqu’ Kawoq in the first place, and what it is we are trying to do. I believe that health care and wellness can’t be divorced from the cultural practices and life ways of our patients, families, and community partners. Our medical practice can be and must be about more than treating illnesses and dispensing medications. It must be used to support and create vital communities which have the potential to heal themselves.
This is why, at Wuqu’ Kawoq, we insist so much on understanding the beliefs and practices of our patients and on speaking their languages. From our small beginnings, we’ve now grown into a core staff of more than 50, all committed to these ideals. We’ve also had the pleasure to train nearly 100 students of medicine, nutrition, linguistics, anthropology, and social work — many of whom have caught on to our vision for working effectively and respectfully with indigenous communities. Dozens of these students speak Mayan languages very well, and they work tirelessly to support the health of populations in Guatemala.
We’ve had so many successes—and yet, during the ceremony, I was reminded that there is still so much more to do.
Although culture work, and learning and using indigenous languages, is a big part of what makes Wuqu’ Kawoq unique and effective, I’m also quite aware that these elements are not enough, not nearly so. Guatemala’s health care system is desperately fractured and ineffective. Unemployment rates are at an all time high, and food prices are through the roof. This week, the country was paralyzed for several days by mass demonstrations calling for the resignation of Guatemala’s president — an ex-military leader currently implicated in a bribery scandal of unprecedented dimensions and scale.
In the face of all of these societal challenges, we need clear thinking, clever organizing, and resolute action. At Wuqu’ Kawoq, our patients have given all of us an incredible gift. They’ve taught us their language and their history. They’ve opened up their homes. They’ve shared their illnesses, and they’ve spoken of their hopes for the future.
The only appropriate response to these gifts is to give generously in return—our time, our money, and our lives.