The Ins And Outs Of Medical Volunteering In Guatemala
Heading into my Guatemalan adventure, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and probably could have done more research, but there was something thrilling about going in with zero expectations. If you’re thinking about traveling to Guatemala as a Medical volunteer, fear not, this simple guide will ease your worries and answer your questions!
Becca Bittman - IVHQ Medical Volunteer in Guatemala
When I think about it, I had a deep longing in my heart to make a difference with the medical and nursing skills I could offer (as a senior nursing student). So I had my minimal, slightly underused Spanish in tow, and a wild sense of adventure in my back pocket and a desire to heal the world.
I couldn’t help but think of exactly this time last year when I came back from Belize for the same kind of volunteer nursing work, slightly dumbfounded by the conditions that people that were living in; crowded, remote villages miles from medical care.
It is often difficult to fathom the medical ailments that people live with everyday, and the blatant lack of nursing support that exists in other countries. But, it was then that I realized there was a real need for what I had to offer. Medical and nursing skills alike, there’s always a legitimate niche for healthcare knowledge abroad and especially in Guatemala!
Tip: Go into this experience open minded about what you may see, in the clinic and in terms of the conditions that people are living in, chances are they may be very different from what you’re used to, but it’s an amazing, eye opening experience! Refrain from judging the health care systems!
Throughout the trip, I was so grateful for the help of International Volunteer HQ’s local team in Guatemala. Their assistance, kindness, and willingness to keep us safe was overwhelming comforting. It was so unbelievable to be able to have a “home base” in a foreign country, where I knew I would be able to find friendly faces and ask questions if need be!
Wait, How Do I Get To The Clinic?
Be prepared that traveling to the clinic will probably be one of the biggest thrills of the trip. If you’re not comfortable taking public transportation in a foreign country, you will adjust alarmingly quickly. Someone will take you the first day, so there’s no reason to be afraid you’ll get lost!
The first day, we hopped on the bus at the church stop, and they were screaming “Guate, guate, guate!” At 7am. It was a spectacle. The buses are ironically named “chicken buses” typically by Americans, due to the nature of how tight the ride is. It’s surreal.
When you think that not even close to a single person can get on the bus, 20 more pile on. Personal space is clearly not a concern. And when there’s physically not an inch of space to move, the bus boy comes through to collect the Quetzales. 5 on the way to Santa Lucia. 2 on the way to Magdalena (the town where our clinic was).
I practically felt like a local. Minus the scrubs and American accent. Close enough, right?
Tip: Bring a little bit of extra money and exchange when you get to Guatemala, because transportation money is not included. It’s fairly inexpensive though, I believe our round trip was 12 quetzales… which is barely 2 US dollars!
So Scrubs Are Okay?
Yes! We wore scrubs every day to the clinic, and it was actually kind of cold. Our clinic was cold in the mornings, because we were actually up higher in the mountains!
Tip: Bring a warm jacket or something to throw over your scrubs for when it gets colder in the mountains!
What Do I *Need* To Bring?
- Bring yourself…
- Small pocket medical Spanish dictionary/translations (so you know how to ask questions and learn basics)
- Your stethoscope
- Hand sanitizer
- Your bus fare in Quetzales (probably around 12 or less= to less than 2 US dollars)
- A small snack
_ Tip: Seriously, traveling on public transportation you want to limit what you’re carrying. I brought a backpack everyday and felt very safe, but minimal is always better! _
What Does The Clinic Look Like & What Will I Be Doing?
Once we arrived at the clinic, we kicked into high gear and honestly jumped in. I promise, this is the way to do it! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the local language or feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s totally okay to ask questions!
From the moment we walked in, there were at least ten people lined up outside the door before 8am all waiting to be seen by a nurse or doctor. We handed out numbers at the door, and then called out the numbers to grab patient files. There are obviously no HIPPA regulations in Guatemala and shared family files are typical.
The organization system is somewhat advanced, but Guatemalans speak rather quickly, which left me thumbing through files until I could even remember what seisenta y siete was in English. Brush up on numbers if you can (especially for blood pressures!).
From there we started triaging patients in order of their numbers, height, weight, blood pressure, and temperature (with 2 mercury thermometers for the entire clinic, yes you read that right…).
Tip: Do not be concerned that most of the policies will most likely be different from where you’re coming from! Our clinic barely had gloves. Don’t let that stop you from hopping in and helping anyway! Glance over how to say numbers in Spanish too (for blood pressures and patient file numbers!)
What Kinds Of Patients Will I Be Treating?
Most of our patients were pregnant women, older women feeling ill, or babies coming in for rounds of routine vaccines. We quickly learned how the charting system worked, and started taking account of the twenty patients we were able to see a day, according to government regulations. Each patient was provided with prescriptions and medications, which we dispensed at the end of their visit from the mini pharmacy in the back of the clinic. We even got to write prescriptions and explain the medication instructions in Spanish as the patients left!
It was exceptional to watch how versatile the nurse’s job is, when there was legitimately only one nurse running the clinic. It redefined the issue of “short staffing” tremendously. We worked closely with a nurse’s assistant, Veronica and she was such a gift, teaching us wherever she could spare a minute. I am forever incredibly thankful for this experience.
_ Disclaimer: _ I easily could have spent another year in Guatemala. Spending a prolonged amount of time volunteering is significantly more beneficial for the villages, and there are plenty of places to explore when you’re not working! All the more reason to head back as a licensed RN, right?
Remember to keep an open mind and your medical volunteering experience in Guatemala will be magical, promise! Enjoy the wild adventure, friends!