Letter from Guatemala: Steps Forward for a Patient and a Nation


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 and second at Circle Citizen. The third installment follows.
One of my friends from high school is Guatemalan. Even though I’ve known this friend for eight years, I had no idea what kinds of horrors lay in Guatemala’s past before I traveled to the country. Since I got here, though, I have learned exactly how large history looms in Guatemala. And in a small way, an important member of our group has become a part of it.
Some background: In 1954, Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, was overthrown in a coup. Armed rebels backed by the CIA installed army colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to counteract land reforms favored by Arbenz Guzman, which were viewed by the U.S. government and the United Fruit Company as too close to communism. On November 13, 1960, a group of left-leaning junior military officers tried and failed to overthrow the new government, and they fled to the jungle to regroup.
Thirty-six years of corruption, totalitarianism, and slaughter ensued. Leadership changed hands in further coups, and leaders often came from the military. Ostensibly, they wanted a return to order, but it came at great cost. President Carlos Arana Osorio, who gained power in 1970, said, “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.”
That effort to “pacify” the country resulted in over 200,000 deaths, according to a United Nations truth commission. The state was responsible for an estimated 93 percent of the period’s human rights violations, many of which fell upon the native Maya and Ixil peoples, who mainly fought for the left and were especially targeted for what amounted to genocide. Real pacification didn’t occur until the mid-’90s, after two years of agreements between the government and leftist guerilla groups led to the Acuerdo de Paz Firme y Duradera on December 29, 1996.
Today, the Guatemalan government honors someone each month who works to renew and continue the preservation of peace in the country. A couple of days into my visit, the honoree was none other than Dr. Merrill Ritter, founder of the Center for Hip & Knee Surgery in Mooresville and leader of this Operation Walk trip. In an hour-long ceremony presented exclusively in Spanish (unfortunate for the non-translators in the group), Guatemala’s first lady, Rosa Maria Leal de Perez, thanked us for helping patients of little means to walk again. At the height of the ceremony, Dr. Ritter exchanged the Rose of Peace that sits in a statue in the middle of the National Palace of Culture, and he was named Embajador de la Paz (“Ambassador for Peace”).
Before the ceremony, I had translated for Dr. Ritter during his preoperative evaluations. One of the patients, Alicia, suffered not just from arthritis, but also obesity, diabetes, and thrombosis, and we could see a large bruise above her ankle. She was scheduled to have both of her knees replaced, and despite a moment of doubt, she was cleared for surgery yesterday, the day we went to the National Palace of Culture.
I met her again today during physical therapy. The therapists I worked with had me ask her if she was ready to walk. She looked tired but ready to go. We got her to sit up, placed the walker in front of her, and told her to stand slowly.
I had already spent a day and a half assisting in physical therapy by this point, so I generally knew what to do. Patients with total joint replacements needed to push off the bed with their arms so they didn’t have to rely fully on legs that, not a day before, had been cut open and fitted with new metal and plastic parts. It was very important for them to do this on their own. We were there for encouragement and direction, not to be bodies to lean on.
Alicia didn’t have the same thing in mind. She struggled at first, but she kept at it because she really wanted to stand up. As she labored, she motioned for me to lean in. I thought she wanted to tell me something. Then, in what I can only attribute to strong personal will and stubbornness, she wrapped her right arm around my shoulders and tried to use me to get on her feet.
“Nononononono!” the physical therapists admonished, and I tried to explain to Alicia that she had to do it herself. I backed away, letting the therapists do their work, and Alicia rocked and pushed until she got off the bed.
And then she started crying and saying things I couldn’t understand. The therapists and I were confused for a few seconds. I looked around the room, and as other patients were cheering her along, I heard more clearly “Thank God!” and other prayers as she took her first steps and tears of joy flowed down her face.
After walking a circle, she sat back down and tried to compose herself. She thanked and hugged the therapists, and she talked excitedly to the other patients in the room, all of whom were now watching and congratulating her. And then she pulled me back over, sat me down, and thanked me even more profusely. I’m not sure if I got it right, but judging from the other patients’ reactions to both Alicia and to the sheepish expression on my face, she called me her husband. (Two hours later, I saw her talking to her real husband, so something must have gotten lost in translation. I did hear the word esposo, though; I’m sure of that.)
So, in two days, I saw profound gratefulness from both a country and a patient, as each of them took steps forward.
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.