Volunteers repair a child’s hearing

MIXCO, Guatemala – Juan Macario’s hearing loss began only weeks after he was born in 1997. The problems had become so severe that the only way his mother could communicate with him was by putting her mouth to his ear or shouting.

Sonia Reyes didn’t see an operation as a realistic option for Juan, 7. The $1,000 price tag was well out of reach for a family of six that typically survives on less than $200 a month.

Michael Martina / The Herald

“Dios es amor, Dios es amor.” ‘God is love, God is love,’ reads the graffiti behind 7-year-old Kimberly Crisostomo’s head on the wall of her neighbors’ home on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

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Several months ago, a doctor from the nonprofit Pediatric Foundation of Guatemala told her about a team of volunteer American doctors and nurses that would arrive in the fall to do ear operations. Maybe they could help Juan, the doctor said.

On a late October morning, Reyes, 32, sat on a thin, worn mattress on a metal-frame bed in her tiny shanty outside Guatemala City. She had just returned from the hospital, where Snohomish’s Dr. Jeff Adams had repaired Juan’s eardrums. After almost an entire life marked by painful ear infections, Juan was only a few days away from hearing the rich inflections of his mother’s voice.

“I’ve prayed many times to God that he help Juan,” Reyes said. “He’s answered our prayers. Thank you, God. Thank you.”

Juan was one of 57 Guatemalan children who recently received operations during a six-day medical mission by 18 doctors, nurses and assistants from Healing the Children, a Spokane-based nonprofit that provides health care to poor people around the world. Six of the volunteers were from Snohomish County.

Without the volunteers’ help, most of the children would have either gone without treatment or would have had to wait years for an operation in an underfunded, overcrowded public hospital.

When Juan arrived at a hospital at the edge of downtown Guatemala City for his operation Oct. 27, about 60 percent of his eardrums had been destroyed by repeated infections and ruptures, Adams said.

The eardrums amplify sound waves. After sounds enter the outer ear, they hit the eardrum, which sends vibrations through three small bones. The vibrations then touch off waves in the inner ear fluid that trigger nerve signals to the brain, which interprets the signals as specific sounds.

Ear infections are common in the United States, but they’re usually treated before they cause hearing damage, Adams said. Guatemalan families such as Juan’s are often too poor to afford routine medications and checkups.

Adams began the 21/2-hour surgery by harvesting tissue from just above Juan’s ears and flattening it so it could be used to graft onto the boy’s eardrum. Adams then made an incision behind Juan’s ears, peeled up the eardrum and surrounding skin, and slid the tissue graft underneath. He inserted a spongy gel that would hold the tissue in place for a few weeks until the graft could naturally adhere to the eardrum. The gel would later dissolve, and the eardrum skin would eventually grow over and replace the tissue from the graft.

The next morning, Adams walked into a crowded room Juan shared with three other children to remove the bandage that he had wrapped around Juan’s head after the operation.

“It looks very good,” he told Reyes as he examined Juan’s ears, which were still plugged with cotton balls to soak up blood.

He then took a soccer ball he had carried at his side and handed it to Juan, who broke into a wide grin. It would replace a punctured, half-deflated plastic ball that Juan has been playing with for years. Juan extended his arm to shake Adams’ hand.

Power in prayer

As Adams left to start another long day of operations, Reyes and Juan prepared for their trip back to Mixco, a Guatemala City suburb an hour away by bus.

When they arrived home, Reyes unlocked a weather-beaten wooden door leading to a tenement of 10 hovels that cling to a narrow cement passageway draped with hanging clothes.

As she passed a red curtain concealing a gray cement pit toilet that serves all 10 families, she burst out crying.

“Somos pobres,” she sobbed. “Pero no puedo vivir en otro lugar.”

(We’re poor. But I can’t live anywhere else.)

Reyes, her husband, Noe Macario, and their four children live in a 12- by 12-foot room built out of mismatched fiberglass and aluminum sheets. Rain that trickles in through holes and cracks in the roof keeps them awake on wet nights. The couple share one double bed, and Juan and his three siblings crowd into another.

Amid the patchwork of cardboard, crumbling wallpaper and blue plastic tarps that cover the walls are pieces of colored construction paper with biblical verses and religious sayings.

“Hay Poder en La Oracin,” reads one that Juan painted in blue, red and orange. (There is Power in Prayer.)

The room is a step up from an even smaller shanty the family lived in until two years ago. After paying $60 a month for rent, gas and water, there’s little left over for anything but food and the kids’ school expenses. Macario’s job as a carpenter’s assistant and Reyes’ work hand-washing neighbors’ clothes usually brings in less than $200 a month.

There are less expensive places to live, but Reyes and Macario moved to the neighborhood mostly because it’s safer for their children. Shanties like Reyes’ share streets with single-family homes.

The couple sacrifice daily to give their kids a chance at a better future. They send all three older children to public school, even though it costs them nearly $200 a year for registration fees, uniforms, books and other materials. When their 5-year-old daughter enters kindergarten next year, they’ll have to come up with another $62.

They see education as the only way to lift their kids out of poverty.

“The first thing they ask you in a job is if you can read or write,” Reyes said.

Sonia Reyes is poor, but she is thankful for what she has. Her children are healthy. Her marriage is strong.

And her faith in God is more solid than ever. There was nothing she prayed for harder over the past few months than for an operation to restore Juan’s hearing. The work of Adams and other Healing the Children volunteers gave Juan a more hopeful future than she had ever thought was possible.

“Without their help, we would have never been able to afford an operation,” she said. “They are a blessing from God.”

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

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