Hours are long, rewards are great

GUATEMALA CITY – Near the end of another 13-hour day volunteering at a Guatemala City hospital, Dr. Jeff Adams emerged through a pair of swinging doors.

The Snohomish doctor had just finished the last of six surgeries he performed that day. The equipment he used was outdated. The operating room was often sweltering.

Michael Martina / The Herald

With Healing the Children, audiologist Mike Mallahan from Everett inspects the ears of Ernesto Alexander Figuera, 16, at a make-shift hearing clinic in Guatemala City.

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Adams, looking composed despite the long, grueling day, walked through the chaotic recovery room past a 7-year-old boy crying hysterically as the anesthesia wore off from his tonsillectomy. Volunteers held him down and spoke in broken Spanish to try to comfort him.

He pushed open another set of swinging doors and breezed past three blue chairs that functioned as the waiting area for parents.

How you can help

Healing the Children relies on donations to pay for supplies, shipping costs and other expenses. Send checks to Healing the Children, 2625 Colby Ave.,

No. 3, PMB 178, Everett, WA 98201.

If youre interested in volunteering for the group, call 425-252-4505. The organization is also looking for people to house and care for children who must travel to the United States for surgery.

He then turned into a small room painted with colorful Disney characters. In one of the four beds lay Marvin Oviedo, 12. Less than two hours earlier, Adams had performed an operation on the boy to remove a growth in his sinuses that had made it hard for him to breathe.

Seeing Marvin resting comfortably, his beaming parents beside him, helped make the exhausting day worthwhile. The boy would have faced years more of pain without Adams’ help.

Adams could have used his vacation time the last week of October to relax on a sunnyCentral American beach. Instead, he and 17 other volunteers paid their own way to Guatemala to spend six days working feverishly to treat every child whose name was on a long list of patients they were handed soon after they arrived.

Six Snohomish County doctors and nurses recently traveled to Guatemala to treat children whose families are too poor to pay for medical care. Volunteering on behalf of the nonprofit group Healing the Children, they spent six grueling days in sometimes trying conditions to alleviate suffering.

Herald reporter David Olson and photographer Michael Martina followed the volunteers during their medical mission. This series chronicles that trip.

Adams was one of six volunteers from Snohomish County. It was the third of four trips Snohomish County doctors and nurses had made this year for Healing the Children, a Spokane-based nonprofit that provides medical treatment to poor children around the world.

During their work in Guatemala, Adams and Dr. Thomas Smith of Hutchinson, Kansas, another ear, nose and throat specialist, operated on 57 children. Other doctors, nurses and assistants took care of patients before and after surgery, ran a makeshift clinic in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and examined young people for hearing problems.

Parents can’t afford operations

The hospital where Adams volunteered, run by the nonprofit Pediatric Foundation of Guatemala, is not much bigger than many houses in Snohomish County.

The patients include some of Guatemala City’s poorest children. Their families could never dream of paying the several thousand dollars that an operation might cost at a private hospital catering to Guatemala’s tiny elite. And they could wait years to get an appointment for surgery at one of the severely underfunded public hospitals that serve Guatemala’s poor majority.

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A rare chance for children with trouble hearing

Operations performed by Healing the Children volunteers are on a sliding scale, costing no more than $170.

Karla Matias, 26, doesn’t know what she would have done without Healing the Children. Her daughter, Jessica Gonzalez, 2, had suffered breathing and swallowing problems since birth.

“She’s always crying, always in pain, with a high fever,” Matias said as Everett’s Dr. Katherine Runyon, a pediatrician, listened to the girl’s heart the morning after her operation. Smith had removed Jessica’s enlarged tonsils and adenoids – a clump of tissue in the upper throat.

“Ah, Jessica, cmo ests?” Runyon asked. “Mucho mejor esta maana.”

Enlarged tonsils and adenoids, and the strained breathing that often accompanies them, are a more serious problem in Guatemala than in the United States, Runyon said. Many children’s noses and throats are constantly inflamed and irritated by smoke from the open fires that are common in Guatemalan homes, and from the noxious black exhaust that belches from buses and trucks with few emissions controls.

Matias had first tried getting Jessica treatment at a public hospital. She was told it would take months to schedule even a brief visit with a pediatrician, so she repeatedly resorted to the emergency room. Each time, the doctors were different and had no knowledge of Jessica’s case, Matias said.

“The medicine the doctors there gave out didn’t do anything,” Matias said. “There was no change.”

During a March visit, a frustrated Matias tried to make an appointment with a pediatrician but was told that the next spot wasn’t available until next year.

Matias told them her baby couldn’t wait that long.

“They said, ‘You have to wait. You have to have patience,’” Matias said.

She then took the girl to the foundation, which immediately recommended an operation. But the foundation had no ear, nose and throat specialist. Matias had to wait seven months for Healing the Children doctors to arrive in October. After Smith’s operation, the girl was breathing normally, a relieved Matias said.

“The doctors here are excellent, just excellent,” she said.

Rigorous schedules

Adams realizes that parents see him as their only real option for their children’s care. That’s why he took on extra patients when they showed up at the foundation during the week, even though that made an already rigorous schedule even more demanding.

“I couldn’t turn anyone away because I wanted to spend time by the hotel pool,” Adams said. “You go there to do the work. And if there’s more work than you expect in a given week, that means there are that many more kids who can have their operations.”

Adams, who at 6 feet tall towered over his patients, spent an hour and a half operating on Marvin Oviedo to remove the growth in his sinuses.

After a brief break, he was back in the operating room standing above Elias Puac, 12. For more than a year, the boy had trouble breathing and swallowing, and he couldn’t hear well out of his right ear, said his mother, Elizabeth Puac.

“No one told me he needed surgery until I came here,” she said.

The operation was the same one that Smith had performed on Jessica Gonzalez. Adams removed Elias’ tonsils and adenoids with an instrument that emitted extremely hot electrical currents that then sealed the wounds. The 55-minute procedure opened up the boy’s breathing passages and removed the blockage that had been causing nearly constant discomfort.

All of the operations Adams performed during his week in Guatemala were ear, nose and throat surgeries. The foundation lost its Guatemalan specialist in that field nine months ago because the doctor didn’t have enough time to spare from his private practice.

The nonprofit group can’t afford to pay its 23 Guatemalan doctors the same wages they could earn elsewhere, said Dr. Andrea Cruz,who helps screen children for the Healing the Children surgeries. So Cruz and others work part-time and supplement their incomes with private practice.

Without help from foreign medical groups such as Healing the Children, the foundation would have to reject patients or increase fees to levels that many parents couldn’t afford, Cruz said.

That’s why volunteers such as nurse Mary Dennison of Bothell spend their vacations cooped up in a low-tech hospital in a rough neighborhood in Guatemala City rather than sipping a glass of Bordeaux along the Champs Elysees. It’s why they shell out hundreds of dollars on airfare and hotels to work long hours under sometimes trying conditions.

Dennison, 50, who works at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, said the gratefulness and smiles of her patients and their parents help keep her going. And each of the seven medical missions she’s gone on over the past four years has helped renew her commitment to care for others back home.

“It resurfaces my passion for nursing,” said Dennison, who has also gone on missions to Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Kenya.

“Sometimes when you’re working in the States, you get into a kind of routine and you forget why you got into it,” she said. “When you’re in a Third World country and see how other people live, and how you can use your skills to help, the flame burns brighter.”

Reporter David Olson: 425-339-3452 or dolson@heraldnet.com

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