Update from the Field: GIFTS Program

Erin Keller '17 seeing patients in the clinic. Photo: Linda Fleming
Erin Keller ’17 seeing patients in the clinic. Photo: Linda Fleming

August 1, 2014: Erin Keller ’17

Last week I was surrounded by the lush green of the Guatemalan countryside, smoking volcanoes, and the beautiful smiles of Guatemalan children. This summer, I was fortunate to be able to return again to a place that is dear to my heart, Santa Maria de Jesús, Guatemala. Santa Maria is a small Mayan village located at the base of Volcán de Agua outside of Antigua, Guatemala. This was my fifth trip to this village, and I was excited to see those who have become my friends and family over the years. The work we did benefited the families that are a part of the GIFTS Program. The GIFTS program is a sponsorship program that supports the impoverished children in Santa Maria de Jesus to remain in school. I worked in a medical clinic alongside my father, Ray Keller, M.D., and the rest of our family, as well as my friend Rebecca Hall, R.N. Other members of our team carried out additional projects that included replacing roofs, building bunk beds, providing chickens to combat childhood malnutrition (Guatemala has one of the highest rates of childhood malnutrition in all of Central America), English classes, and programs for children. All of our work was done in collaboration with a local non-governmental organization called Fundación Hunapu.

More this year than ever, I was reminded that medicine is more than prescribing medication and diagnosing a disease. It is about showing up. The people of Santa Maria de Jesus have often reminded us that they feel forgotten. So to them having a bunch of Americans show up to help them with projects and give medical care means everything. It is a reminder that they are not invisible and there are people that care about them. In relationship to health, the hope that comes from knowing you are not forgotten, can be healing. Health is more than just the physical. In the mornings we held a medical clinic at the local community center seeing families that are a part of the sponsorship program. We gave vitamins and ibuprofen, things which we take for granted in the United States, but in Guatemala are luxuries. We also continued to collect health information from the families to allow us to better help them in the future. We offered diabetic and hypertensive medications to those who needed them and did some patient education. In the afternoons a smaller group of us went on home visits. We visited the elderly and shut-ins. Many of these patients were stroke survivors with severe deficits. One man in particular was confined to his bed and unable to speak after his stroke. There was little we could do for him except sit with him in his bedroom visiting and offer some acetaminophen to take away his daily pains. However, after this he took a marker and labored to write a note to us that said, “Muchas Gracias.” To him, our visit meant the world. In many cases we could not heal our patients and cure them from their lives of poverty and pain, but we could provide each patient with hope that one day things will be better and that there are people who care deeply for them.

Location: Santa Maria de Jesús, Guatemala
Length of Stay: 12 days
Name of Program: Moving Mountains (GIFTS Program/Fundación Hunapu)

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