Each day volunteering in the Centro de Salud (Health Center) was unique. Because I speak Spanish and spent the whole day volunteering, the Guatemalan staff at the Centro took a liking to me, and of course me to them, and wanted to make sure I got a variety of new experiences as they knew that I still had one more year of nursing school left and wanted to learn and do as much as I could. Whenever I arrived, I looked forward to seeing the healthcare staff already beginning the day with the Centro filled with patients waiting to be seen. I love the staff because they are all so caring for their people.

They could easily start their own private healthcare practices and earn much more money; however they are so compassionate and choose to work in public health. Once I developed a routine at the Centro, I usually began the morning completing the pre-consultations with another nurse, another volunteer, or by myself if we were short on staff. We usually had about thirty for the first half of the day. Often after finishing that job, I would be directed to whichever clinic needed some extra help. Sometimes it was to the vaccination clinic, the women’s clinic, the pharmacy, or to shadow the doctor. Through the variety of experiences, I was able to learn so much about healthcare in Guatemala and notice the differences and similarities with healthcare in the United States. The staff taught me how to do so many things so that by the end of my stay there they trusted me with running the clinics on my own.

The nurses frequently went to various health education conferences and they were thankful to have me to fill in for them. This was something that I certainly did not expect, but felt honored that they trusted me with these important roles. They were always sure to get me if something more out of the ordinary came up in another one of the clinics. For example, if the doctor was going to do a minor procedure on a patient, he made sure I was there to observe and assist as needed. Other times, I would go with several nurses into the village looking for the children who still needed to be vaccinated or trying to locate children who were scheduled for appointments because of malnutrition, but did not come in to the Centro. As I spent more time there, the staff developed some additional roles for me. Because the pregnancy rate among girls and teenagers is so high, whenever a girl between the ages of ten and sixteen came in to see the doctor, especially for reproductive issues, the doctor would have me teach the girls about issues related to reproduction and pregnancy prevention. The education regarding sexual health is lacking significantly so I was glad to be given the opportunity to discuss these issues with the young women.

At about noon, most of the staff would eat lunch and then we would begin again with a whole new list of patients for the doctor and nurses to attend to. Afternoons were usually a bit slower so after finishing the pre-consultations I, among other activities,would sometimes spend time with kids in the waiting room. The conversation often focused on asking each other about our families. I loved the honesty and innocence that the children offered. Some of my most meaningful memories happened during down time. When I would have the opportunity to talk to the Guatemalans, to get to know them on a more personal level. Sometimes it was with the kids and other patients in the waiting room, other times with the secretaries, or with the staff during lunch or as we sat forming cotton balls out of long sheets of cotton.

The health care staff are all excellent at what they do and they all work as a great team to make the Centro run smoothly, even when volunteers are not there. That being said, having a volunteer there does lessen the stress and allows for more flexibility. The staff is interested in getting to know the volunteers only if the volunteer shows real passion and investment in what they are doing. I was told that volunteers are constantly rotating in and out of the Centro, but few rarely take the time to really get to know the people they are serving and serving with. I feel that there is so much more value in the experience for the volunteer and the Guatemalans when the volunteer is committed to going deeper with the people. Once the trust was established, we had many honest and deep conversations about cultural and lifestyle differences, social issues, families, etc.–both of us benefiting and getting a broader view of the world.

Kara Mulvihill
May 22 – July 17, 2011
Volunteer Guatemala