Sea Change

Posted on: 05/01/2018

Author: Smeck, MD, Dr. Jane Ann

By: Ker Thomson, MD

It has been a year since I was last here in Guatemala, on a mission trip with Faith In Practice (FIP). If you will forgive me, I will recap a seminal understanding that eluded me for the first two trips here. It puts the point of this blog in context.

Faith In Practice has been coming here since shortly after the 36 year brutal civil war that left this country impoverished and destroyed. Today, a quarter of a century later, the median age is in the low 20’s with an average median annual income for the lower middle class of about $1600. Resource-poor is a wild understatement.  The pioneers of Faith In Practice came in 1993 and began to see and address the unimaginable medical need.

Fast forward to 2014, and I signed up with the Card team (Gary Card is a legend in Faith In Practice, but you will never hear it from him). Blindly I hung up my day-to-day life and got on the plane. We worked hard for a week, did good stuff for some really needy people, and came home. Coming here was an experience like few others.

The people on the teams with which I have come here ‘get it’, they really do. But I was left with the nagging question of ‘why’? Why did I go? Was it fun? Yes. Were there great people there? Yes. Did we get to do crazy cases you never see at home? Yes. Was I moved by the experience? Yes. Did I learn to appreciate what I have at home? Not really. I get that already, I do. 

The question that bothered me most was, “Did I make a difference?” Because that is what mission trips are about, right? And, I just didn’t see how my small part made a meaningful difference. Given the sheer magnitude of the need and the size of the wave, my effort just didn’t seem matter. Squirt gun to a house fire.

Never-the-less I was drawn back the next year. Again, I did great cases, felt like a real doctor, was not a slave to the computer. But, again, the return on investment (ROI) was not there for me. Frankly, it was aggravating.

I thought a lot about it. Why did I go? What was the purpose? Was God drawing me back? Did he have something for me to learn? Had to be. I looked for it, intentionally, but it never came together. To be sure, I felt honored to be with the people who went. But why didn’t I feel like they did? 

So last year, I specifically came back, seeking answers. And, away from everything, with no phone or internet to speak of, I thought and listened. And you know what? I began to see what I had missed.

I realized that I had been thinking that we live in the ‘macro’, believing that only the ‘big things’ in life matter: politics, international crises, environmental issues, “the news”, Facebook, sports, etc. Many think that since we care about these things means that we have an influence on them and have meaning to them. We think we are ‘macro-important’. In truth, these macro things are not impactful to the micro.  We live in the micro.

In other words, what kept me from understanding the value of these trips was the fact that what I do here in Guatemala didn’t seem to be “macro-important”. The bigger truth dawned on me: we don’t really live life on the macro, not in Guatemala, not really anywhere. Sea change: the epiphany was that life happens on the micro, the present, this moment, which collectively, might affect the macro, but only over generations and millennia.  

Your life is right in front of you: what did you do today, for whom, with whom and for what end. That is life’s essence.

A different (and quite humbling) perspective. I believe the value of coming here to Guatemala is not to humanity, not to the country of Guatemala, not even to the family of the patient (although that is pretty close), but to the one patient right in front of me. That particular act of kindness, the extra patience, the care we can give at the moment. “What you do for the least of these. . .”  (Mt 25:40)

So (and maybe everybody gets this and I am just late to the party), for me, to put the “micro-important” into action in the now completes the circle. And that came home today, here in Guatemala.

So to wrap up, I finally think I “get it”; what other Faith In Practice team members who come here again and again and again have long understood. I now have eyes to see the underlying story of why people step out of their lives, spend their money and vacation, and come here to be part of the mission of Faith In Practice. More than what they give (which is a lot), I now see the meaning in the moments, the connections, the contact in the micro, human to human caring that happens. It is a gift both given and received, between the staff, the team, and the patients; person to person, in the micro, here in the now. For me, the slow learner that I am, I hope it is a lamp that doesn’t end up under the bed.

Dr. Thomson with a patient


Dr. Balduf with post-op patients