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I was invited to ride down into the ravine with some of the Potter’s House medical team for their weekly visit to the dump—not an experience I thought I’d have, given the restrictions surrounding the place.
Potter’s House holds the privilege of being the only group currently allowed inside the Guatemala City dump. The dump is closed to anyone apart from city officials, people who hold a permit to scavenge, dump truck drivers and Potter’s House.
We stopped short of the mounds of trash in the distance and pulled into a small building, sitting next to a mountain of smashed cars. I took in the 360 view of the place—the trash, the stench, the dust—it’s not the ideal place for a medical clinic.
But then again, scavenging in a dump isn’t an ideal living condition.
In the Guatemala City dump community, thousands of people spend long, tiresome days scavenging for just enough money to buy the necessities for the day.
Not only is healthcare a scheduling issue, it’s a financial burden. How does someone convince men and women in a precarious state of employment and finances to see a doctor?
You bring the doctor to the dump.
Treasures working in the dump are exposed to countless pathogens. They pick through discarded food, broken glass and even trash from restrooms (in much of Latin America, it’s customary to throw away toilet paper instead of flushing it). As a result, many come down with skin infections and respiratory problems.
Not only are they exposed to these risks, but many are already vulnerable to health issues because of malnutrition.
Medical needs were among the first things to come to the attention of Gladys and Lisbeth when they began to work in the dump over 25 years ago. And now, volunteers, staff and donors make medical care free and accessible to the Treasures as a part of Potter’s House holistic mission.
Getting to Work
The building that houses the clinic serves many different purposes, and is constructed accordingly—cement floors, a wide hallway with a few rooms on either side and some well-used plastic chairs.
The patients waiting in the hallway when we arrived were covered from head to toe in clothing, but despite these efforts to shield themselves from the dump, they were suffering through illnesses. Each one of them had visited the clinic earlier in the week to see a municipally hired nurse, but she referred each of these patients to return Friday when the Potter’s House doctor was in.
I dug through the patient files as a Potter’s House staff member and the doctor set up their supplies. Another volunteer set up a few chairs in a side room to meet with the Treasures individually in order to check their emotional and spiritual well-being, in addition to their physical health. I had the “simple” job of passing out files.
“Is that your last name?” I said, pointing to a file. “Your first last name or your last last name? Or a middle name…?” I struggled, trying to find the right files for each of the patients. “With a ‘t’? Oh—with an ‘x’? Sorry.”
The Treasures patiently repeated their names and waited. When I finished my strained distribution, I took a seat in the waiting room and watched the patients move around—from the doctor, to the medicine station, and finally to the “spiritual care” room.
Each Treasure coming from this room headed out with a broad smile, piquing my curiosity.
In the Path
Lucia, one of the Treasures, moved from the doctor over to the spiritual care room. I hesitantly asked if I could join her.
“Of course,” she said with a warm but tired smile.
We took our seats next to the volunteer who began asking Lucia about how she was feeling. Lucia began with the positive, but as she continued to talk, tears started falling.
She spoke of unhealed events from her past, of her daughter and her desire to provide for her, and of the difficulty of life lately. I listened with a heavy heart, trying to hold back my own tears. The volunteer listened, taking in the Lucia’s words with compassion.
She looked Lucia in the eyes and offered words from her heart, words from scripture and words of prayer. Lucia listened intently and absorbed the kind words. She slowly dried her tears and changed her posture. The warmth returned to Lucia’s eyes.
It became clear to me why patients were leaving this place with smiles. Each patient in the clinic received not only the physical relief and medicine they desperately needed, but also emotional support.
Somebody cared enough about them to step into their paths on the way to the dump and care for their bodies as well as their spirits.
Each Treasure left the clinic with empty sacks and headed down into the dump to continue the daily routine of scavenging. But at least along the way, they were met with the support they needed. At least—in one way or another—they were healed.
- Read about how medical support fits into the Potter’s House mission on their website. Consider donating to Potter’s House to partner in fulfilling this critical need in the dump community.
- What have you been taught about sanitation and disease prevention? If you do get sick, what resources do you have to help you? Take a second to think about these blessings.
- Next time someone around you is sick, offer to drive them to the doctor, cook for them or lend a hand in some way during this vulnerable time. The action might be just the physical and emotional support they need to recover.
- Pray for the Treasures suffering from medical and health problems. Pray for the volunteers and staff who reach out to them and care for their bodies and spirits.
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.