While Americans struggle to reform a complex and expensive health care system, Larry and Sandy Turner are working to fill the most basic health care needs of impoverished villagers in Guatemala.
Their efforts have improved countless lives near Lake Atitlán, where rural villages lack clinics, doctors and medications. One by one, the Turners and teams of volunteers provide Guatemalans with eye care, dental care, physical therapy and many other services. Volunteer doctors also help villagers manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes.
Since 2012, more than 230 residents of Southwest Colorado have worked in clinics in the southwest highlands of Guatemala, where villagers earn $7 to $8 a day, the Turners said.
The Turners have traveled to Guatemala 13 times and observed transformation in the lives of villagers and volunteers, they said.
Many volunteers develop relationships with the villagers and return again and again, Sandy Turner said.
“We believe that we helped develop this greater sense of giving,” she said.
They have organized most of the trips, which are largely sponsored by the First United Methodist Church. The teams include support staff and medical providers such as nurses, doctors, dentists, physical therapists, physicians assistants, among others.
The work in Guatemala is one of several ongoing international missions organized through the Methodist church. Other outreach projects are ongoing in Africa, Haiti, Houston and New Mexico, Sandy Turner said.
Trips to Guatemala have drawn participants from more than a dozen churches and people who don’t attend church, Larry Turner said.
Medical mission trips from many American communities are organized partially through the Hospital Obras Sociales Monseñor Gregorio Schaffer in San Lucas Tolimán. San Lucas functions as a county seat and is surrounded by about 23 rural villages that volunteers visit.
An American nonprofit called Friends of San Lucas supports education, housing and heath care in the area, and it helps coordinate medical volunteers.
The groups led by the Turners are the only ones that visit the same villages trip after trip, which helps providers build relationships with patients and helps those with chronic conditions manage their symptoms, Sandy Turner said.
“We ask our doctors to take time with each patient, build relationships ... listen to them, hear their story,” Sandy Turner said.
In between visits by volunteers, designated health promoters screen children for malnutrition and provide them with supplementary food, the couple said. The health promoters also provide patients in the villages with medication on a monthly basis. Donations from Americans support the native Guatemalans in their health work.
Larry Turner described their work as meeting a small niche in a continuum of needs of health, housing and education that once met can help stabilize the populations.
“They don’t become refugees trying to seek a better life,” he said.
As a former hospital administrator, he finds the American health care system “confounding.”
“It seems to be so upside down,” he said.
Now, working in real estate, he called the mission work in Guatemala a “personal awakening” because he was able to observe how others survive on so little.
“They are satisfied with simpler things,” he said.