The Heartbreaking Plight, and Inspiring Heroism, of Guatemala’s Volcano Survivors
“Each visit to a patient is heartbreaking because for many, we are their only hope,” Project HOPE medical volunteer, Sheila Cardwell, on Project HOPE’s work in Guatemala. Read about one family’s horrific plight one month after the Fuego volcano erupted.
Stories of horrendous suffering and human courage are emerging from Guatemala, a month after the Fuego volcano eruption.
Survivors are suffering from burns, respiratory issues and chronic illnesses. Many are unable to travel long distances to reach medical professionals – highlighting the serious problems in health care access in some rural areas that the tragedy has revealed.
When patients can make it to the nearest hospital, they are often discharged before their treatment is complete due to overcrowding. Sheila Cardwell, a Project HOPE medical volunteer has been treating many families in the affected communities. Here is her eyewitness testimony about the conditions in the area around the volcano and the vital care she has been providing.
“Each visit to a patient is heartbreaking because for many, we are their only hope.”
In Alotenango one afternoon, we heard that a woman in the village was in need of wound care. Not knowing the extent of the injury, I grabbed my wound bag and with the rest of the volunteer team, went to visit the woman. We parked outside the local outdoor laundry facility where women were washing their clothes and walked down up a steep, narrow alley lined with tin-sided houses. Opening the rusty and broken metal slab that was their door, we were greeted by seven children and emaciated dogs, cats, chickens, and ducks.
Most of the children were shoeless and their feet were blackened. It appeared that their feet had been previously burned and crusted over. We walked into their home, a small, dark room with a dirt floor. In one corner, there was a wood burning stove filling the room with smoke, a commonplace in this village.
The woman we were there to see was lying on a bed with a scarf over her burned back and buttock. Her third degree burns were extensive, going from her lower back to upper thigh and covering the entire width of her back. The wound prevented her from being able to sit or lie down. When we entered the room, she looked up and smiled, relieved to see us.
We learned that she had made it to the hospital two weeks before and was treated for a week, but was discharged because there were not enough beds available. Instead, she was forced to travel back home and wait in pain. Her husband was unable to help her because he had burns on his feet, which kept him from being able to walk. Together, the two of them fought through the daily pain to care for their seven grandchildren, one-and-a-half to 12 years old, whose mother recently died from cancer.
Because of the dirt floors, flies, crowded room, and poor nutrition, the woman’s burns had the potential to become seriously infected and could have led to sepsis or even death, so we visited the house every day for four days, treating the wounds and changing the bandages. We taught her husband how to care for the wounds, left supplies for them, and made arrangements for her to travel by ambulance to a hospital for follow up care.
We also took a look around the house and noticed that while the family was doing the best they could given the circumstances, they had little food and no help. Our team reached out to representatives of the local parish and together, we were able to get food, water, household and hygiene supplies, as well as diapers for the baby.
After the last visit, the children followed us down the road for one more hug. It was hard to leave this family, but we knew they had the supplies they needed to recover. There are so many here that need our help, so once we knew the family was taken care of, our team returned to the clinic we are operating from to continue medical care for others.”