Three Years, Two Teams, One Boy

January 2015

The young boy stood among the small crowd, watchful of the visitors who’d entered the village. Among the girls wearing brightly colored huipiles and boys in their guayabera shirts, Daniel stood out because of the white towel covering his face.

The visitors’ arrival elicited curiosity among the residents of Saca, a remote village in the highlands of Guatemala. Guests are rare in the rain-dappled Yucatán hills. The closest town, Chicaman, is several miles away over a rutted dirt road, where the rare vehicle bounces and rattles slowly. The journey takes hours.

The kids were apprehensive at first. The visitors from Medical Teams International were tall and dressed in matching red shirts. Finally, the children’s curiosity got the best of them, and they called to the group as they swarmed closer. The visitors brought the children over and showed them the squishy stress balls they’d brought, resembling globes of the world. “This is where we live,” the visitors said through an interpreter, pointing at the western United States. “And this is where you live,” moving their fingers to the isthmus of Central America.

During these exchanges, Daniel stood apart. The towel covering his face.

Among the trip were employees and friends from Reser’s Fine Foods, based in Beaverton, Oregon. The team traveled to build covered, ventilated stoves for people’s homes. Traditional wood-burning stoves didn’t vent to the outside, instead filling homes with smoke every time families used them. This lead to breathing problems for the families exposed to the smoke and fumes.

Daniel was a consistent presence during the first few days of the trip, along with the other children. The hood of his jacket was usually pulled and cinched snuggly over his head. He was inquisitive about the stove construction projects happening around him.

Mari Jo Prlain, corporate director of Reser’s Fine Foods, was on the trip and noticed Daniel. The other children didn’t treat him differently. But she was struck by his curiosity and how his face was always covered.

Daniel suffered from a growth on his face as a young boy.
Daniel sits in his home, where volunteers build his family a ventilated stove.

On day three, Mari Jo finally had an unencumbered view of Daniel and saw why the boy kept himself covered. A growth protruded, roughly the size of a large plum, drooping from the right-hand side of his face.

One of the volunteers was a nurse. She inspected the growth and determined that it was not attached to bone. It was free-hanging. She was able to manipulate it, moving it from side to side. This meant a surgeon could potentially remove the growth at a hospital.

The growth was impacting Daniel’s life. Not only was it causing discomfort, it was obstructing his vision and extending into his nose. Mari Jo and the other volunteers talked to Medical Teams’ staff about raising funds to pay for Daniel’s travel to Guatemala City so he could have surgery.

Medical Teams Guatemala staff found surgeons willing to perform the surgery for free. After coming back to the states, Mari Jo sent an email to a small group of potential donors who’d been on the trip to see if they’d be interested in changing this boy’s life. They’d pay for lab tests and travel expenses, while surgeons would perform the operation free of charge.

But there was still one hold up.

Village leaders voiced reservations about sending the boy to Guatemala City for an operation. Because hospitals cater to the sick, injured and elderly, the leaders considered them places where people died. “If Daniel goes, he will never come back,” one said.

Still, with a prayer, Mari Jo and her team raised the money to support Daniel and hoped for the best.

Daniel and his family sit around their old, unventilated stove.
Daniel and his family sit around their old, unventilated stove.

January 2018

Three years later, there was serendipity in Saca.

A Healthy Women, Healthy World team that included Reser family members traveled to the same village in 2018. None of them knew about Daniel or his struggles with the large growth on his face.

They were in Saca to build new water systems. Three years after the first team had come to the village, its residents were used to Medical Teams’ presence. They welcomed the team excitedly. One of the boys was Daniel, who none of the team members had seen before. Still, they wondered — what had happened to Daniel? He looked a little different from the other children.

Laurie Reser, who was on the trip, discovered that Daniel had once had a large growth on his face, but that doctors in Guatemala City had removed it with Medical Teams’ assistance.

Daniel received life-changing surgery.
Daniel, post surgery, poses with a Medical Teams volunteer in his home village.

It wasn’t until the team arrived back home that they discovered the whole story: The first team to arrive in Saca in 2015 had discovered Daniel and raised money for his surgery. And while village elders had initially voiced reluctance about sending Daniel to Guatemala City, they changed their minds. Medical Teams had followed up with the family and convinced them to have Daniel undergo the operation.

This came as amazing news to Mari Jo, who often thought about Daniel and his health struggles. What had happened to him? 

“You just wonder … what happens over the course of their lives,” Mari Jo said.

Knowing that her team not only made a difference in the village through the installation of stoves and water systems, but also leant assistance to this boy, filled her with joy.

In Daniel, we see a transformation that will last a lifetime. And for the communities in which we partner to bring health in Guatemala, lives change every day. Lasting community health comes from partnership, wondering what will happen if we don’t show up. We are proud to partner with communities, corporate sponsors and volunteers.


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