By Liz Desimone (MKLM Class of 1977-Guatemala)
In 1977 Fay Hauer and I traveled to Guatemala to answer a call from the late Maryknoll Father Mo Healy to begin a health promoter training program in the Petén jungle. Other programs existed in the country, set up by Maryknoll sisters and other religious groups, but nothing existed in the Petén. Although we were both nurses, neither of us knew a thing about health promoters.
Working with a mobile clinic, we learned first-hand what the health needs in the area were. We also started to teach health classes to the villagers. Then in late 1979, we began to teach students to become promotors of health in their villages. This course took two years, and students attended when they could find spare time from their work in the corn fields. The first class graduated in 1982. They could then treat common infections, parasites, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition in their aldea (village).
After Fay and I left, other workers continued the program, including Maryknoll lay missioners Mary Beth Bathum and Sheila Matthews (class of 1980). Sheila began working with Carmen Ché Chóc, a Kek’chi girl, who at age 15 had been part of our first class of promoters.
Together they expanded the program to offer classes in Kek’chi, the language of more than half of the villagers. Eventually, the program was turned over into Carmen’s capable hands.
For years people came from aldeas far into the interior of the Petén where little or no medical services existed. With severe lacerations, such as cuts from a machete, villagers needed to take an arduous and expensive journey to a bigger town like San Luis, Poptún or Chacté to find a doctor. Carmen therefore decided to teach the promoters suturing techniques. Unfortunately, the cost of suturing kits was prohibitive, so Carmen reached out to us for help with fundraising.
With the money we raised, as well as contributions from Lin Moorman, a fellow nurse, and Bob Cashin (MKLM class of 1977–Tanzania), soon the program had enough money for five instruments and a sterilizing pan for each of the students. The students practiced suturing on pig carcasses that share some properties of human flesh.
We are grateful for Carmen’s inspired leadership, vision and dedication. As of this date, 178 promotors have graduated and provide health care where little or no care previously existed. Over time, Carmen added midwifery, natural medicine and dental care courses. She helped train 22 promotors of dentistry, 16 promotors practicing herbal medicine and acupuncture, and 100 midwives. She also teaches dietary care for diabetics to help prevent complications like amputations and loss of organ function.
She recently told me that the newest promoters have already begun using their suture sets.
Liz Desimone served for three years as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Guatemala. She is a registered nurse and nurse practitioner and the author of Guatemala in My Blood: How Nursing In Remote Jungle Villages Revolutionized My Life (Create Space, 2009).