When asked to reflect upon two questions: Why does Guatemala need Wuqu’ Kawoq and personally, what motivates me to continue the work Wuqu’ Kawoq is doing? I immediately reflect on my friend, Don Andres. Our relationship began in 2004 but was cut way too short in 2008.
Don Andres, a friend and confidant, passed away. He did not from the tumor on his liver, but from the structural barriers to healthcare in Guatemala that I work to fix. Don Andres was in his fifties when I first met him. He sought me out – He said: if I was going to live in his community for the next year, then my time and that of the communities had better be worth it.
His friendship and guidance grew over time – I met with him often and learned about the history of the community, the problems with development, and his dreams for a better Guatemala. He often taught me phrases in Mam, his mother’s language, and we practiced K’ichee’, his language. Better health care and securing a path to education for children in Guatemala were his passion. We held many community meetings exploring the available resources and performing a healthcare needs assessment in the region. These experiences provided me with the understanding of health and well-being for many rural Guatemalans: how communities identify their resources and the true resources they need and long for.
Sharing drinks in the shade of his patio or cooking tortillas around the fire with his daughters became commonplace. After a while, he began to lose weight., Visits to doctors and hospitals left him without answers. Finally, after a visit to the capital on borrowed money, he was provided with an x-ray – his family was told it was a tumor, nothing more. His family immediately looked to me for help. It was my friend, a 4th year medical student and I who had to break the news to Don Andres and his family. As tears rolled down our cheeks, we let him know a large tumor and several small ones were taking over his liver. We explained what that meant for his future and his body, and helped him understand what cancer is and how tumors form.
The next three months were difficult and painful as we tried to find doctors who would help or provide some sort of guidance. The family poured money and all of their savings into finding a solution and only returned helpless as their patriarch lay wasting away. I tried the best I could to get him an appointment with a traveling American medical team that visited Guatemala once a year. I had faith that the medical system I knew and trusted could at least provide him relief in the final stages. However, by the time they arrived, it was too late, Don Andres was no longer able to travel and only a week later he passed away. In the end, the family relied on herbal treatments and prayers they trusted to provide some peace and well-being.
We spent hours together, sitting at his bedside as he slipped in and out of consciousness. The entire situation made me feel powerless as my work with Wuqu’ Kawoq was only just beginning to take root; I didn’t have all the answers and resources to help him yet. Even though, Wuqu’ Kawoq had just begun, Don Andres told me that is was revolutionary to name an organization in a Mayan language and use Mayan languages in healthcare, he encouraged to me to never quit and fight on because this was the change Guatemala needed. It was Don Andres’ life that helped direct my focus to develop systems based within the local culture and language in order to create change. Change focused at root causes not just another band-aid to cover the problem. It was his death that has driven me to empower local communities to embrace their potential to be the agents of change, to save lives and change their futures, so they no longer miss windows of opportunity.
Don Andres and other patients like him have led Wuqu’ Kawoq to create a Complex Medical Care program that is changing the lives of rural indigenous people with cancer, complex diabetes, heart problems and more. We are proud that we have created the infrastructure to bring the neediest rural patients to the expert teams in Guatemala City for live saving treatment.
Photo Credit: Rose Cromwell, http://www.rosecromwell.com