Dacula, GA | Human and Organizational Development, Health and Human Services | 2017
Britt Hatcher is a senior in Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. He is from Dacula, GA. Britt is an HOD- HHS major and will be attending medical school next year. His Nichols Fund Project involves participating in an internship with Primeros Pasos, a rural health clinic in southwestern Guatemala. While there, he will be working with the organization as a volunteer with their clinic and rural health initiatives, as well as conducting research and contributing to strategic business planning, organizational development, and grant writing for Primeros Pasos.
Blog Post One:
I arrived in Guatemala on May 16th, a short four days after I graduated! When I left the US, there were so many things on my mind – How am I going to pay for medical school? Where am I even going to live? How will I find roommates? My very first night as I laid in bed in the hotel room on a quiet Guatemalan street, I realized that the only thing on my mind was myself. I was so caught up in my own problems and desires that I had already forgotten how much of an incredible opportunity I’d been given!
I started to ask myself this instead: What is the Lord going to teach me during my time here? How can I challenge myself to love and serve the people around me – including those I’m working with and for? How can I use this blessing to learn how to be a more capable leader and a more humble servant?
Already, my time in the country has been incredibly marking. On a personal level, I have experienced an enormous amount of growth through the demands of increased independence and the need for constant awareness that I’m in a different culture. I’ve expanded my abilities in Spanish, learned about cultural dynamics that affect family structures and customs, and started working with an organization that is making a difference in rural community health here in Xela. I’ve learned about the challenges facing healthcare providers in the country, and heard story after story about lives affected by a lack of access to quality healthcare. For example, I heard a mother tell the story of an exciting and long-awaited pregnancy that ended in tragedy when a failure to catch a breach birth ended in the loss of the child.
I want to make sure I do this country justice, though. It’s easy to come into a “third-world” country and look only for the bad, the poor, the sick, etc. The reality is that Guatemala and its people are beautiful. It’s an amazing country with nature like I’ve never seen before. The people are warm, welcoming, and polite. They exhibit more grit, entrepreneurship, and determination than I feel like I possess on a daily basis. Even with little money compared to what I’m accustomed to, my host family has constantly demonstrated generosity that blows me away, opening up their home to women and families in need. Just this last week, my host mom spent two days with a woman who needed support during her chemo treatment and then the next three days hosting and consoling a woman whose eldest son – the breadwinner of the house – had a terrible motorcycle accident.
Sure, Guatemala can feel poor at times. Trash lines the sidewalk on many busy streets. A single dollar can buy almost a full meal. Sometimes it feels dangerous, like when street dogs snarl, bark, and chase me with an unexpected ferocity. But for the most part, I have absolutely loved my time in this country. It’s reminded me how to enjoy walking. It’s reminded me that people are people, no matter how rich or poor. It’s taught me how to learn about and appreciate other people’s culture, and it’s taught me a little bit about the challenging but rewarding world of international NGOs.
Final Blog Post:
It’s been three weeks since I got back to the United States and I can’t believe it’s been that long. My time in Guatemala is still so fresh on my mind, and I’ll try to put on paper the two months of life-changing experiences that I had this summer.
When I got to Guatemala, we spent the first few days staying in a hotel. It was overwhelming, and it took me a while to get my bearings and even feel comfortable stepping outside of the hotel. The streets were crowded, narrow, and uneven… and they all looked the same. The smells were sweet, sour, rich, and tangy, often varying from block to block. There was noise all the time, perhaps the most shocking example being the 5:00am firecrackers that were shot off every morning by families celebrating a birthday or a major life event. A close second place would be the roosters, which woke us up every morning by 6:00 am if the firecrackers didn’t do the trick. Aside from the fact that the city felt different than anything I’d experienced before, many of the small routine things I used to take for granted suddenly got more complicated. Instead of drinking from the tap, we had to buy bottles or fill the large container every few days. No matter how delicious it smelled, we avoided street food because we knew there was a high risk for bacterial infection. Finally, I had to learn to cook for myself and fit time for cooking into my schedule. These seem like tedious, insignificant things, but I realized that part of understanding someone means being able to relate to their daily routines and experiences.
Despite the shock of adjusting to a new schedule, throwing toilet paper into the trash can instead of the toilet, etc., the largest adjustment by far was using Spanish as a daily (hourly) communication method. It wasn’t really an option. If I wanted to order food, find the bus, etc., I had to use Spanish. In the instant I recognized this, I realized what a blessing it was to have already received an education that allowed me to easily to adjust to communicating with people in a different language than I grew up with. In terms of cultural adjustment, I realized that this was much less difficult than I’d imagined. Despite the separate language, people in Guatemala are remarkably similar to someone I’d expect to meet here in the US. They love TV, have dreams and ambitions just like my peers at Vanderbilt, and laugh at the same jokes. They play sports, want to go to college, love coffee, and more. I learned that, no matter how many miles apart, people are linked together by a lot more than separates us.
As far as my schedule in Xela, Guatemala, I split most of my weekdays between working in a clinic called Primeros Pasos and taking advanced Spanish classes at a local Spanish school. At Primeros Pasos, I worked with a team led by local educators to enhance and teach a preventative health curriculum to students in grades K-6 in schools in the Palanujoj Valley. We spent a lot of time focusing on sex education, self-esteem, mental health, puberty, and nutrition. It blew my mind to see how challenging it was to get these kids to focus, and part of that is that the content we were teaching was so foreign and unfamiliar. It made me realize how much of my education – and even my moral code, really – can be attributed to the blessing of growing up in the US with teachers who were knowledgeable and had the resources to provide an excellent education.
Not surprisingly, part of this summer was a reality check and a bit of disillusionment. I came in having spent the majority of my life romanticizing the notion of practicing medicine in Central America. Both through my experiences in Primeros Pasos and through firsthand stories of peoples’ contact with the national healthcare system, much of what I learned was shocking. Statistics about teen pregnancy, birth complications, recovery time from surgeries, availability of specialists for complex conditions, and more were appalling. I learned about the general feeling of mistrust toward the healthcare system, particularly the physicians at local hospitals. The problem seems to be a complex mixture of under-resourcing, a lack of attention to patient well-being, a failure to create a system that produces personalized medicine decisions, and a general tendency to spend too little time with each patient to treat more than the most critical of conditions. I wondered a lot about where I could fit into a system like that – a system so large and with so many complex failures. How could one person possibly make a difference? How could I – a single doctor – possibly hope to make an impact in such a HARD medical model. It was a discouraging thought, and it wasn’t until I thought about impact on the scale of a single patient that optimism returned. No matter how many patients there are that need care, I realized that every single interaction is an opportunity to shape someone’s life trajectory and provide excellent care.
I’m not sure what the rest of my life and professional journey will look like. I know with certainty that I want to practice a service-driven career, and I would love for some of that to be in Central America. However, I think that the biggest need is for physicians in specialized fields to provide excellent quality care and inspire local physicians to strive for continual improvement in their own healthcare system. I’m also pretty certain that my opinion and perspective on this issue will change throughout my lifetime. All of that aside, there’s a special place in my heart for Central America and Guatemala. I can’t wait to go back, and I know that the experience I had will effect the way I approach the next four years of medical school. Finally, this summer reaffirmed more than ever the reality that this world is in the hands of a mighty, beautiful, and loving God who wants to know us intimately and who transcends all lines of culture or nationality.