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It is now past the halfway point of our team’s stay in Tecpan, Guatemala, but it feels like just yesterday that we arrived. I have come to love so much about this country—how passersby greet each other with a smile and an unhurried “Buenos días,” the spontaneous rain showers and chilly mornings during canícula season, the warm aroma of pan dulce and corn tortillas wafting down the streets, the festive chaos of Market Day every Thursday and Sunday of the week, and the din of church bells, dogs barking and roosters crowing all at once.

Watching the breathtaking sunrise from the rooftop of my homestay in Tecpan jogged my memory of something our driver on the first day, Don Ernesto, said. He explained that Guatemalans see every day as a “ganancia”—a bonus—in part influenced by the violence and brutality experienced during their country’s 36-year long civil war. It means that each day holds unending promise, and that time is not easily taken for granted here. Don Ernesto’s explanation has proven true, because all the nurses, doctors and community health promoters I have met in Wuqu’ Kawoq make the best of every moment in the clinic or out in the field to better the lives of those in the community.

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Irma with one of the twins that visited the Socorro clinic on Tuesday.

Early last week, after what was possibly the bumpiest three-hour car ride of my life, our team arrived in Chocola, in the Boca Costa region of Guatemala. We met Glenda, who is a women’s health nurse at Wuqu’s Socorro Clinic and who spearheaded the successful implementation of BioSand water filters in the surrounding community. She told us that, when she first arrived to work for Wuqu’, she knew very little about water filters, and though she received her nursing certification, there were many specialized procedures she had yet to receive training for, such as Pap smears and birth control implants. Glenda sees each challenge and each day as a new opportunity for learning and self-growth, and she approaches every task, every interaction, with humility balanced with the right amount of confidence.

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Lovely Glenda, always humble and eager to learn.

At Socorro, we also met Irma, a petite nutrition technician with the biggest of hearts. I could tell that she truly enjoyed her daily work—whenever Irma spoke of the children she works with, a spark of devotion would alight in her eyes. Early the next day, a line began to form outside the clinic, so I helped Irma take the babies’ height and weight while Irma spoke with the mothers individually about nutrition and gave them packets of nutritional supplements. I saw the importance of her work, as many of the babies seemed too thin or small for their age group. However, Irma’s meticulously written notes tracked each child’s growth progress, and there were noticeable improvements. Irma explained to us that one of the most important goals of the nutrition program is to help families recognize recursos escondidos—rich nutritional sources that families leave untapped. For instance, avocados are rich in folic acid, which the body uses to make blood (I didn’t know that before either! Time to eat more avocados). It is difficult to convince families to change deeply ingrained habits, such as eating only maíz and frijol, but Glenda and Irma do so in a respectful manner that helps them build trust with the community.

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Weighing a baby as his mother looked on. He was not happy about being on that apparatus!

Building this relationship was no small feat for the team in Chocola. In the beginning, the health promoters and nutritionists had to venture into the community to visit the families, but over time, the families began coming to the clinic of their own volition—to discuss reproductive health concerns or family planning, to seek counsel on their child’s nutrition, or to request a new water filter for their household. This is beautiful to me, because it means that the people of Socorro feel empowered to take their health into their own hands, and that Wuqu’s vision has come to fruition in one small slice of Guatemala. However, there are communities, like Paquip in the highlands, where this relationship must continue to be nurtured and strengthened. Importantly, although many of the communities that Wuqu’ serves share a Mayan language, they do not necessarily share the same customs, beliefs or health behaviors.

I hope that one day Guatemalans can step into any healthcare setting—clinic or hospital, NGO or government-subsidized—and feel comfortable in their own skin. I hope that one day, all healthcare providers embrace the standard of serving patients humbly and with cultural and linguistic competence as Glenda and Irma do, so that patients do not feel belittled and patronized when all they are seeking is medical advice. And although I say “one day,” I know that tomorrow is never a guarantee. So I will strive to live by Don Ernesto’s words and embody the spirit of Wuqu’ Kawoq’s team—today I am healthy and able-bodied, today is a privilege, a blessing, a ganancia in its own right, so today I will do all that is in my power to do good by others.

Michelle Zhang
UT Austin Grow Intern

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