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Opinion

Reflections from Guatemala: The True Meaning of Health

One Student Shares a Touching Experience of a Spring Break Trip to Guatemala


GuatemalaSome things in the world are universal: kindness, a smile, laughter, a hug. These are the things I experienced while in Guatemala despite an enormous language barrier between “las amigas” (my friends) and I.

As part of an independent study project with Dr. Christo­pher Hirschler, assistant profes­sor, four other MU students and I journeyed to Guatemala during spring break to deliver health education on a variety of impor­tant topics, including the health effects of tobacco use, alcohol abuse, proper lifting techniques, stress management, and dehydra­tion.

Although we had prepared for months in advance by completing readings, research papers, and viewing documentaries regarding the political and cultural history of Guatemala and the Mayans, there were not truly understood until actually visiting Guatemala.

Culturally, I noticed differ­ences in the things we prioritize, such as the value of sleep and the types of foods we are willing to eat for breakfast, lunch, and din­ner. On the other hand, there were many similarities, such as the mutual appreciation of breaks to get outside, enjoy the sunshine, and play basketball.

Ironically, I went to Guatemala assuming I was going to be the one teaching, having packed the materials for an entire health les­son. In reality, I think I learned more from the friends I made in Guatemala than I could ever dream of.

Just when I thought we were separate, there would be a re­minder of how we really are all the same. Sitting in Pastor Juan’s classroom as he taught las ami­gas y amigos of the Salud y Paz community health program what it means to practice good health. I couldn’t help but think just how universal his teachings were and that when it comes down to it, we are all human with the same needs to be healthy, to be loved, and to belong.

The aspects of health, he said, are not comprised of only the physical, but of the social, emo­tional, environmental, and spiri­tual as well. It occurred to me at that moment how much our cul­ture focuses only on the physical, and that a healthy life truly does take much more than that.

We held “devocion,” or prayer services, every morning by the lake to express gratitude for what we have, and to pray for those who have less than us or who face challenges such as illness, pov­erty, and grief. Heartfelt prayers were voiced aloud for family and friends suffering from a vari­ety of health maladies, including diabetes, cancer, gastrointestinal disease, and stress.

By taking a moment each day to step back and appreciate, I felt more and more responsible to help and teach what I knew would help “las amigas” to better do their job as community health care work­ers and to make a difference.

My time at Salud y Paz taught me the ability each person has to make a difference and confirmed my desire to become a physician.

For example, on the last day of delivering health education to “las amigas,” as we said our goodbyes and hugged, one woman had tears in her eyes and she told me how important the lessons we taught were and how she will share them with others in her community.

Another woman was emotion­ally moved by the lesson we taught about proper lifting tech­niques. She explained how cru­cial the knowledge we taught is to her community, and reflected on how her mother died of a back injury, having been bedridden for 15 years because she did not know how to lift properly.

The amount of gratitude expressed by every person I met in Guatemala was a blessing in itself, and in stark contrast to how much we take for granted in the United States.

Instead of a simple “thanks” af­ter three days of delivering health education or a long day hauling buckets of concrete for construc­tion of a new wing at the clinic, we received hugs and words of sincere gratitude that brought tears to my eyes.

By the end of my nine days in Guatemala, I felt enriched both culturally and spiritually. My view on health has changed and I now understand that good health is not the product of a body in good physical condition, but a person who is enriched and ful­filled in the mind, body, and spir­it.

PHOTO COURTESY of Genevieve Fasano

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