Medical mission team heeds pope’s message of mercy
By Mary P. Walker
In his Lenten message, Pope Francis said, “In the Corporal Works of Mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited.” Taking these words literally, medical missionaries visited the poorest of the poor in San Cristóbal, Guatemala, during Spring Break. They not only brought their expertise, but also gifts of clothes, shoes and small toys.
During this Year of Mercy, 47 participants from Bryan/College Station and throughout Central Texas offered a variety of medical and practical skills. They included physicians and physician assistants, dentists, nurses, physical therapists, translators, pharmacists and others.
San Cristóbal Parish encompasses 90 villages in mountain terrain. The people speak Mayan dialects, and lead physically demanding lives. They suffer from ailments that range from life-threatening to debilitating to painful.
Just getting to those in need was a challenge. Each day, the team departed by bus to village locations, praying the rosary along the way. At times, the missionaries had to walk up a mountain for the last leg of the journey. At their destinations, they set up clinics to treat patients, who may have traveled far and waited in long lines.
Working with primitive conditions, language barriers and severe limitations, the missionaries did what they could to heal the sick and bring comfort to the suffering. Dr. Jeanette Cunningham of Waco is a dentist. She explained that her work primarily focused on urgent cases requiring the removal of teeth and alleviating severe pain.
Whitely Cave characterized his job as “traffic control.” He helped keep the lines organized and moving smoothly so that as many patients as possible could be treated. “Runners” worked with the medical professionals, getting supplies and medications. No act of kindness was too humble for the missionaries. They cleaned feet and washed ears, distributed clothes, taught patients how to brush their teeth, sanitize water, and other hygienic practices, and with the help of translators, answered questions.
For the missionaries, their work and companionship were offerings to God.
“We love the spirituality of the group. It is like going on a retreat,” said Michelle Braden of Bryan. Dr. Cunningham agreed, stating that participating in the mission was a good way to observe Lent.
Deacon Frank Ashley of College Station made the trip to offer spiritual care to the missionaries and their patients and to help as needed. Each morning he got up at 4 a.m. to prepare for prayer with the team. At a prayer service before leaving, he encouraged the medical missionaries to show the face of Jesus to their patients and families, and to see the face of Jesus in those they treat. For Deacon Ashley, this homily became a prophetic message.
During last year’s mission trip, a woman came to the makeshift clinic carrying her 15-year-old son. Weighing 17 pounds, the boy suffered from a rare disease that left him wasting away, blind and unable to talk. Dr. Steve Braden of Bryan and the other missionaries had little to offer beyond their loving, prayerful support of the mother. They did not expect the boy to live much longer. This year the mother once again carried her son to the clinic. He now weighs 13 pounds, and once again, death seems imminent.
The tender love the mother offered to her dying son reminded Deacon Ashley of Mary’s devotion to Jesus. “That mother loves her son so much, and she knows there is nothing she can do. I will remember this every time I look at Mary holding Jesus,” Deacon Ashley said.
The medical care and emotional support that the missionaries offered would not have been possible without considerable preparation prior to the trip. Kathy Polzer of College Station coordinated the missionaries and ensured that they were ready for the trip. Pharmacist Michelle Braden dealt with the complexities of the customs regulations and paperwork to get medications, clothing and supplies legally into Guatemala.
The missionaries expressed their appreciation for the prayers and support of area Catholics and others who made the trip possible. Cash donations allowed the purchase of supplies and medications, and helped some missionaries afford the cost of travel. Donations of clothing and shoes brought joy to the children. In addition, the missionaries praised the work of Father Roberto Cum of San Cristóbal Parish, whose team organized the itinerary, fed them and provided Mayan/Spanish translators.
This combination of medical skills and organizational expertise resulted in nearly 1,800 needy receiving care during the week. While that number is impressive, the missionaries strived to treat each patient as an individual with the dignity befitting a child of God. Michelle Braden echoed the experience of the entire team, saying, “When you can look into the people’s faces and see Jesus looking back at you — that’s powerful.”