Letter from Guatemala: 30 Operations, 21 Patients, 8 Hours


Editor’s Note: Our correspondent, Alex Farris, is a research writer with the Center for Hip & Knee Surgery in Mooresville. As part of Operation Walk, he recently traveled to Guatemala with a surgeon from the clinic, Dr. Merrill Ritter, and agreed to update IM with a series of dispatches. Read the first here. The second installment follows.


I woke up at 4:50 this morning to have breakfast at our surprisingly ritzy hotel, the Vista Real in Guatemala City—five floors of luxury rooms, fountains, stone paths, trees, and pool. Overhead was a sky full of stars I never get to see in non-tropics Indiana. We got on the bus at 6 a.m. in order to arrive at the hospital in Amatitlan by 7 and start setting up the OR, waiting rooms, and logistics. I wasn’t sure what to do (nothing new), so I stood by the door to the operating rooms and waited for people to corral me into some translator work.

I got corralled plenty, which is what I came here to do. I started off by relaying questions from the tech guys to an administrative assistant, and with that warm-up I was ready to take on patients.

At least, I thought I was. I forgot the words for “cast” (yeso or escayola, depending on what part of Latin America you’re from), “to cry” (llorar), and “lungs” (pulmones). I persevered, though, most pleasingly when I couldn’t recall the word for “back” until I got to the part of the sentence when I needed to say espalda and, on the fly, came out with it. As another, far better translator told me, relearning a language is much like riding a bicycle. It comes back to you.

The doctors did 30 operations on 21 people in eight hours. The patients were as varied as they could be, from a 7-year-old who needed foot surgery to a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who required full-length casts on both legs. I translated for the girl’s mother, who, an hour after the procedure, insisted that her daughter’s constant post-op crying was truly from pain, and not just from being a perturbed child in two full-leg casts. The doctors observed her for another half-hour or so, the child’s wails echoing down the hall the entire time. The hospital staff eventually conjured up a cast saw (una sierra de yeso), and the doctors cut a groove in the casts so they wouldn’t feel so tight. In no time, the girl stopped crying and smiled a beautiful toddler smile.

When we returned to the hotel, I went looking for the pool and I ran into an anesthesiologist doing the same. We found two maids and asked them for directions. One answered, in a long, rapid string of words I couldn’t understand.

“Could you repeat that?” I asked, only in Spanish.

The maid replied (also in Spanish): “I have arthritis in my hip, and—”

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted. “I’m very sorry, but I’m not a doctor.” I explained that one of the real physicians might be able to help her.

She thought I was a doctor! I must be doing something right.


Alex Farris has worked as a photographer for the Indiana Daily Student and, currently, the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

Photos by Alex Farris. View more at his website.