Three Reasons Medical Supplies Save Lives in Guatemala

Close your eyes and imagine a hospital. A few images will probably pop into your head.

Clean white floors.

Rooms filled with sterile, state-of-the-art equipment.

Staff bustling about, treating patients.

But walk through the stained hallways of the National Hospital of Uspantán, Guatemala, and reality will replace those idyllic visions. Up in the Guatemalan highlands, where poverty meets seclusion, the hospital struggles to keep stock of the most basic medical tools.

A corridor inside Uspantán National Hospital in Guatemala, with outdated medical equipment and medical supplies

A corridor inside the Uspantán National Hospital in Guatemala.

While it’s hard to look past the rusted gurneys and delivery tables, alarmingly outdated equipment, or the fact that the hospital is understaffed, there are signs of hope. And they come in boxes shipped from the United States.

Medical Teams International sends critical supplies and equipment to 20 health facilities in rural areas of Guatemala, serving a predominantly indigenous population. The National Hospital of Uspantán is one of these facilities. Without these donations, there’s no telling how people in the surrounding areas would survive basic medical emergencies.

In Guatemala, where the most vulnerable people bear the highest burden for health care, medical supplies mean the difference between life and death. Here are three reasons why.

1 – Poor Health Funding

Publicly funded hospitals don’t have enough money.

Health investments are low in Guatemala. The country spends about $224 per capita on health care annually, the lowest amount in Central America. Rural hospitals like the one in Uspantán operate on extremely tight budgets. Because they don’t have the money to purchase new equipment or replenish their supplies, they’re often understocked. Often, these facilities ask that their patients bring their own supplies.

2 – Lack of Supplies

The absence of money leads to supply shortages.

Outside Uspantán, patients living in poverty tell stories about having to purchase and haul their own supplies to the local hospital.

Juan and Lucia are parents living in a village outside Uspantán. Their daughter, now 8, has been chronically sick since she was 3-years-old. Before she’d even started school, she’d undergone multiple operations. The first surgery was an appendectomy. The other two were to repair the opening in her belly created from the first surgery.

Nurses asked that Juan and Lucia bring supplies for the first two surgeries, but on their third trip to the hospital nurses didn’t make the same request.

“When we returned with my daughter to the hospital for her third surgery, I was surprised I wasn’t asked to contribute any medical supplies or equipment,” Juan says. “I asked the nurse if we should buy something, and she explained that an organization called Medical Teams International had donated many things so patients no longer had to buy them.”

This came as an unexpected relief to the family. For three years, Juan and Lucia had watched as their daughter fought for her health. They did what they could for Regina, putting her on a special diet of milk, vegetables and fruit. But they avoided the hospital whenever they could, fearing the extra costs of taking Regina there.

Regina is doing better now, and her parents no longer worry about the financial costs of taking her to the hospital.

“In the previous two surgeries, I spent a lot of money,” Juan says. “Now I’m going to save a lot of money. Thank you for this donation (that) has come to this hospital to support us poor.”

3 – Extreme Poverty

Poor patients are burdened with purchasing their own supplies.

Guatemala is the poorest country in Central America. Nearly 80 percent of the indigenous population lives in poverty. They also face discrimination and language barriers, blocking their ability to rise out of poverty.

Director of Nursing, Profirio Aguliar, talks to a Medical Team staff at Uspantán National Hospital

Director of Nursing Porfirio Aguilar, left, talks to Medical Teams staff at the Uspantán National Hospital.

Many of these people suffered during Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which ended just 22 years ago. One of those people is Esteban, who lost his leg as the result of the war. For nearly three decades, Esteban would fashion his own crutches out of tree limbs. Because of his disability, the farmer didn’t have the money to buy his own crutches. And the local hospital, around 30 miles away, didn’t have any in stock to give him.

That is, until a shipment of medical supplies arrived. For the first time in three decades, Esteban is fully mobile.

Esteban with crutches that were donated medical supplies from Medical Teams International

Esteban with his crutches.

Porfirio Aguilar is the director of nursing at Uspantán National Hospital. Without shipments of medical supplies and equipment, his hospital would have trouble serving the needs of the local community, he says.

“Our doctors and nurses have seen a dramatic shift as many patients now walk through the doors in a much more treatable state because they are recognizing symptoms that could be life-threatening in time,” he says.

Though it’s hard to imagine hospitals going without this equipment, going without is often what happens in Guatemala. But with an even stronger imagination, one focused on what’s possible, you can make a long-lasting impact on the lives of deeply vulnerable people.

There are many reasons why supplies are important. Many ways how they help resource-strapped hospitals and financially struggling families in Guatemala. Because while supplies like gauze, medical tape and syringes seem simple to us, they make a world of difference to people like Regina, Esteban and Porfirio.


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