3,000 Miles Away But Close to Home

By: Brittany Jemmoua

July 07, 2022

Volunteer talking to patient

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and can overcome by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness bloom. – Nelson Mandela, February 2005, Make Poverty History Campaign in London

Lifting away the curtain that symbolized the front door, I entered a dark, cinderblock room and instantly became overwhelmed by an unpleasant odor. Working with oncology patients as a Child Life Specialist and an Occupational Therapist for over ten years, I recognized that smell.

I had arrived in Guatemala – more than 3,000 miles from Reno – and it was my first day of a week-long trip where I would be serving alongside physicians in low-income communities providing free medical care for residents.

My name is Brittany Jemmoua, I am an occupational therapist at Renown, and I recently volunteered with Kalan Kuxtal, a non-profit Guatemalan organization. I served alongside physicians by providing free primary care mobile clinics and home visits. The care we provided focused on prevention, intervention, education and lifestyle/medication management as we partnered with local entities, such as fire stations, community centers and schools to transform hundreds of lives.

Speaking in both English and Spanish, I collected patient intake information, performed exams, tested for diabetes, and collaborated on a diabetes research project focused on daily risk assessment. Beyond these tasks, I immersed myself in the culture and learned more from the Guatemalan people than I could have ever imagined.

Similar to Renown, Kalan Kuxtal Operates with Community at its Core

Kalan Kuxtal, a Mayan expression meaning “life guardian,” is different from other volunteer medical trip organizations, and I took home valuable insights and lessons from their way of life that I now consider daily in my practice at Renown.

  1. I expanded my knowledge about diabetes, hypertension, pharmacology, infectious diseases, pregnancy complication, vector-borne illness and tuberculosis.
  2. We conducted home visits for socially neglected populations rather than expecting everyone to come to our clinics. I found that being welcomed into people’s homes gives you a different lens in which to view how their medical diagnoses interact with living conditions, occupations, and quality of life. This is when I met Mercedes and her mom. Her mom, Ms. Valencia, had jaundice skin and a substantial Basal Cell Carcinoma aggressively protruding from her face that impacted eating, hearing, seeing, sleep and social interactions. This opportunity to serve within their home led to an important palliative care conversation that would have been missed had we stayed in the clinic.
  3. We combed the rural neighborhoods assessing people’s risk for diabetes, taking glucose tests and educating families about their next steps. Many individuals had uncontrolled diabetes and misunderstandings regarding basic health management strategies. At the end of the day, many people demonstrated feelings of empowerment by actively offering solutions regarding how they will manage their day-to-day glucose with diet and exercise. Small actions can lead to big changes, and in the long-term, these health actions can help them avoid medication costs and focus on affording basic life necessities, such as water and electricity.
  4. Kalan Kuxtal organized a cultural day that included going to local businesses and community leaders to learn more about how they support the people of Guatemala. For example, Valhalla Macadamia Farm’s main goal is to help communities gain access to income, employment, and improved wellbeing by donating macadamia trees to families to grow and then sell macadamia products.

A Weeklong Trip with Lifelong Impacts

Each patient made a lasting impact on me, both personally and professionally. One specific family I saw in the clinic had a unique situation in that their two-year-old daughter, Margareth Elizabeth Cifuentes Bautista, was laboriously diagnosed with irregular corneal syndrome associated with glaucoma of congenital origin. Due to Guatemala’s limited prenatal screens and interventions, Elizabeth is nearly blind. While highly spirited and happy, she trips, bumps and feels her way through life. One barrier to her healthcare access is that her hard-working parents remain well below the poverty line, making less than $900/month. I am working to connect them with generous US Ophthalmologists and pediatric eye specialists to explore how we might save her sight and help her family. Their biggest dream is that she could recover her eyesight.

“I know that this is not a life-threatening situation, but it is still something that never stops hurting me,” Jorge Cifuentes, Elizabeth’s father, said. “Unfortunately, our situation here is very hard. This country [Guatemala], although beautiful, it is very difficult to get ahead. We are people living in underprivileged conditions which complicates our situation even more. However, we are still trying to thrive by being kind and hardworking people. Thank you for helping us.”

I have had the privilege of an opportunity for education, access to healthcare, employment and am aware that inequity and injustice prevail. This experience reinforced my understanding that medicine is a physically and mentally demanding profession that requires a commitment to service, continuous learning and adaptation both on local and global scales. I encourage everyone to please join me in serving the underserved by volunteering.

Brittany is an experienced Occupational Therapist at Renown and volunteers with Kalan Kuxtal and other entities, such as The Robert Unsworth Foundation and Rock Steady Boxing to elevate communities. She loves being an Occupational Therapist; however, her life experiences confirm that her true calling is to become a physician. She is currently applying to medical school. Brittany is eager to earn the responsibility to improve lives and communities as their engaged physician. Brittany is tentatively scheduled to return to Guatemala at the end of this year to continue partnering with the people for a better future. You are welcome to join!