The human right to health includes access to “timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality” according to the WHO. In Guatemala, approximately 49% of children are chronically malnourished. This is the fourth highest rate in the world; and in indigenous communities the rate is closer to 70%.
For Dr. Lyle Waldman, these are just some of the issues that represent why he has spent years dedicated to providing medical assistance to those who need it most. Originally from Montreal, Canada,, Dr. Lyle saw the great need and at the same time was charmed by the region of rural Guatemala. He is an admirable example of what it’s like to be entirely devoted to making a difference. He and his wife, Andrea Waldman, have been volunteering for several years with Mayan Families through their own NGO, G.I.F.T., providing essential health care to the indigenous Maya populations in the Lake Atitlán areas.
Today is yet another day at the Panajachel-based Charlie Gómez Clinic and you can see Dr. Lyle coming and going with his indispensable cup of Guatemalan coffee. It is one more day he is ready to provide medical consultations to those who otherwise would not have any resources to pay any medical or health care. The line of young women, mothers, children and elderly people grows waiting their turn outside the clinic door. In fact, he had been so busy that we had to wait until his last day with us for me to learn more about his work in the clinic. The conversation is comfortable and his wife joins us in the clinic.
Dr. Lyle, tell me about your story since the beginning. What motivated you and your wife to come to Guatemala and work with the indigenous people?
Everything started 15 years ago, when we come to Guatemala to travel. One night having dinner, we met a Canadian couple who had done clinics here, we were talking and I knew that is something I would like to do’.
A few months later an evangelical medical group that was coming from Canada needed a doctor to help another three nurses to work in Guatemala. I was working in my office in Montreal and they asked me to come and volunteer. I remember I was sitting in front of my computer, my wife Andrea was going to retire from teaching in Montreal and I said, Andrea, I am coming back to Guatemala.” We sold our house in Montreal and we started working with patients And basically this is how all started, working in Cobán with no electricity. It was fantastic!(Laughs). I realized people here really need help, we wanted to make a change. To this day, we have never regretted it!
Tell us how is the daily routine at the clinic?
I started working 3 days a week and Monday has been the busiest day. When I started, people began to come from villages all across the lake. One of the best aspects of having a clinic in Mayan Families is that my patients can have access to a follow up on their diagnostic. I receive lots of patients in bad situations, normally because of their financial issues. They don’t have enough money for the transport, so lots of them come here by foot from El Tablon or Tierra Linda (8 miles away). Sometimes we have to send someone to assist them in special cases, because they don’t have the 5 Q ($0.6USD) for a tuk-tuk to come to the clinic. They don’t have any doctors in their own towns and what happens frequently is that they go to the doctor, they pay 20Q ($2.6USD) for the visit, then they go to the pharmacy and need to pay 300Q ($39 USD) or proabaly more. Finally, the patients come to my office one month later and tell me “Doctor, I can’t pay the medication…”
How does the public health work in Guatemala? Can people here go to the hospital and be treated?
Well, you can go the hospital…but you won’t get anything. Sometimes the people go to Sololá and, if they attend them, what occurs is that very often they don’t have the medication or don’t have the oxygen. One time I went with one little boy who has pneumonia and he had to go to Xela (51 miles from Sololá) because they didn’t have any medication for him in Sololá. He had to go to Xela, get the medication, bring it back and then be assisted in Sololá.
Another time one girl was badly injured in the head, she went to the hospital in Sololá and she was unconscious for hours because they didn’t have the machine to scan her. Then she woke up and was sent to Xela to see if she had blood in her brain; she was operated in Xela. Afterwards the social service was dealing with the family, because the normal price for a scan is 1200Q ($ 156 USD) and we collected that money and paid for them because they didn’t have any money! At the end, It’s really difficult for them to have access healthcare here. Examples like these ones are endless…
What you have learned from these years providing, not only medical support, but help and humanitarian relief within Mayan Families?
After working for years as doctor in Montreal, how would you describe the experience of treating indigenous Guatemalans who don’t speak your language and come from a different culture than yours?
Completely different, totally different, here we have to do everything. First of all, the traditions.
You have to understand what their religion means to them. Sometimes they say or explain things that mean different things to me or I am not used to hearing it. Another thing, they don’t look at symptoms on the Internet and come to you with the diagnosis (laughs).
Lot of indigenous people here know already what they may have but they don’t how to treat themselves.
I am impressed with your story…
Well, It’s not difficult to do what we have done. You just need to have the desire to do something useful with your time, you need devotion for people.
Peoples as Doctor Lyle encourage us to keep helping impoverished populations in rural Guatemala. Thanks Doctor.
To support our efforts please consider donating to the Charlie Gomez Medical Clinic or our General Medical Fund, by using our quick donation page and indicating in the “notes” section where the donation should be allocated.
For any questions about health care access in Guatemala or any particular medical case, please do not hesitate to contact me at email@example.com