She shuffled into the exam room in La Clinica Maxeña in Santo Tomas La Union, Guatemala, slowly and supported by her parents. She is a 24 year-old Mayan woman named Catarina, but she looked much younger. For the past few months, she could only see light and couldn’t recognize movement or anything else. I looked into Catarina’s eyes and noticed that her pupils were completely white; I suspected that cataracts had stolen her vision. Catarina was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago and had difficulty controlling her blood sugar levels, a condition that worsened when she could no longer see well enough to administer her insulin regularly. On top of that, she lived in a rural village in the Guatemala highlands with no access to proper eye care. I knew that we needed to replace her white cataracts with clear lenses that would allow Catarina to see again. Fortunately, this was exactly what we were in Guatemala to do.
A few months earlier, I had received a call from Dr. Chris Engelman, my former chief resident at Stanford University, asking if I could join a team of volunteer eye care specialists who were traveling to Guatemala as part of the Jornada de Ojos (Expedition of Eyes) program. Chris needed a cataract surgeon and I promptly volunteered.
La Clinica Maxeña was founded in 1964 by Catholic missionaries from Montana. Today, there is a full-time, local family practitioner at the clinic, but no full-time specialists who serve the surrounding population of nearly 100,000 indigenous Guatemalans. A group of ophthalmologists launched La Jornada de Ojos about 20 years ago to provide no- or low-cost eye care for the people of this region. The program grew over the years and now a group of physicians volunteers for one week every 6 months to examine around 300 patients in the eye clinic and perform 40-50 eye surgeries, including around 40 cataract procedures. I was be part of the 37th Jornada de Ojos, which was led by Dr. Martin Fishman, who did an amazing job coordinating this complicated trip.
We flew into Guatemala City then took a four hour bus ride on an extremely bumpy road past several volcanos, rubber trees and coffee plantations. The countryside, isolation and poverty reminded me of the movie Romancing the Stone. We arrived on Sunday to a warm welcome at La Clinica Maxeña and got to work setting up the operating room and eye clinic, as well as examining patients, including Catarina. That night, we slept in comfortable little rooms on the clinic campus.
On Monday morning, the impressive operating room was ready to go and Catarina was brought in, obviously nervous, but completely trusting. She only spoke K’iche’, which is a Maya language of Guatemala, so my Spanish was of limited use. Fortunately, the local staff was extremely helpful translating my Spanish to K’iche’, and I did get to learn that the word “utz” in K’iche’ means “good.”
We completed Catarina’s eye surgery without complications and the smile on her face after the procedure was priceless. I suspect that my smile was just as big.
A billboard Our eye care team worked at La Clinica Maxena the rest of the week, rotating between the operating room and clinic every day through Saturday morning. We then examined the last post-operative patients, closed up the eye clinic and operating room and headed to the colonial capital of Antigua for a little sightseeing and hot shower. The days were long but the experience was unforgettable…it was “Utz” all around!
by Dr. Ken Kreidl
Boulder Medical Center