Global health trip to Guatemala

When “just being there” makes the difference

Joe Kimbell helps meet the need for medical care in Guatemala.

In a mountainous village in Guatemala, Natalie Hinchcliffe positioned her stethoscope on a female patient’s chest. Not a sound from the woman’s left lung field. Now what?

With just one year of her osteopathic medical education under her belt, Hinchcliffe had been both excited and nervous about DMU’s first medical service trip to Guatemala in June. She had taken her physical diagnosis tools home to practice on family members before the group left. In that Guatemalan clinic, she felt the need to hurry; there were many more patients to see. And just how many lungs had she listened to, after all?

Students Kayla Bliton, wearing the green hairband, and Jackie Nehls, behind her, examine children during DMU’s first medical service trip to Guatemala.

Still, Hinchcliffe asked the supervising physician, Des Moines physician and DMU global health adjunct faculty member Chandra Batra, M.D., to listen to the woman’s lung. He decided to send the patient to a hospital for an x-ray, which revealed the presence of tuberculosis or cancer and the need for further treatment.

That experience taught Hinchcliffe that often in health care, just being there is what counts.

“I was physically present to do what many others can do, to listen to that woman’s lungs,” she says. “You just have to care enough to want to be there.”

Hinchcliffe and five other DMU students spent 10 days in the Central American country, treating nearly 200 patients in mountain villages, homes and at a clinic supported by the Des Moines-based outreach ministry, Scott Missions. Communication was a challenge: Each team worked with two translators, from English to Spanish and from Spanish to the indigenous Mayan language.

“I would ask a question, and after translation the patient would talk for a while,” says Kayla Bliton, D.O.’13. “A lot of the patients had a lot of issues, so it took time. We needed to see 40 patients a day, but we also wanted to take the time to help everyone and convey empathy while interacting through translators.”

Common conditions among their patients included scabies, parasites, infections and issues related to many Guatemalans’ physically challenging lifestyles.

“Women carry babies on their backs and big, heavy loads on their heads and shoulders,” noted Megan DeBlieck, D.P.T’11. “The farmers carry huge sacks, which they haul with a strap across their foreheads.”

A view of in the mountainous landscape in Guatemala, a Central American country.

Such tolls on patients’ bodies made her physical therapy skills especially valuable. DeBlieck, who worked with Elizabeth Harden, D.P.T.’06, during the trip, recalls a couple in their 70s; the husband had Parkinson’s disease, and his wife was his main caretaker.

“I was teaching her alternative ways to help get him ready for the day, such as transferring him from the bed to a chair,” she says. “I gave her a gait belt. She was so willing to learn.”

Despite the challenges the group faced – including intestinal issues and harrowing drives on hairpin mountain switchbacks (“you just said a prayer every time you got into the van,” Harden says) – they agree the experience benefited them in multiple ways, from the chance to work as a medical team to the skills, friendships and perspectives they gained.

“The thing that stands out most for me was seeing all these people who, if they lived in America, wouldn’t have their problems,” says Joe Kimbell, D.O.’13. “Many had nothing, but they were so grateful and enjoy the simple things in life. That really sticks with me.”

Learn more about the global health department at DMU and read about a recent trip to Haiti.

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