|| Stories & photos by Sean Sprague
Two Maryknoll Sister-doctors dispense medical care and compassion in Guatemala
It’s Monday and half the town seems to be lined up outside the Maryknoll clinic in Catarina,
in Guatemala’s San Marcos province. In a country where skilled health services are only for the rich,
this clinic run by two Maryknoll Sisters who are doctors not only fills the gap but also performs miracles in the eyes of the poor.
Except for four years stateside on the Maryknoll Sisters’ leadership team, Sister Jane Buellesbach
has served in Guatemala since 1963. Sister Mary Lou Daoust has been there since 1981, except for six
years on the leadership team. Most of their time has been in Catarina.
“We gain the trust of the people because we are so long term,” says Sister Jane. “People come to us because they hear we give good advice, good medicine and a simple approach.”
Fifty years is a long time to be serving almost continuously in mission, and I dared not ask Sister
Jane’s age. The missioner from Milwaukee, Wis., describes herself as a “child bride,” having entered
Maryknoll at age 18. She became a Sister and then trained to be a medical doctor, with further training as a surgeon. When asked whether she prefers to be called Sister or Doctor, she replies, “Just call me Jane!”
Sister Mary Lou’s training was the other way around. The native of Detroit, Mich., became a physician
first and later became a Sister. “I did three years of residency and general surgery and then spent a
year as an emergency room physician in Miami,” she says. “I had been thinking of working in another
culture, and Miami is a multicultural city, so I think that interest developed even more during the
time I was a resident.” In addition to sharing her faith worldwide, Sister Mary Lou considered it easier
to work overseas if connected to an organization like Maryknoll. “Today it would have been easier to
work overseas as a doctor,” she says, “but in those days it was easier to also be a religious as it provided an infrastructure.”
This Monday, as usual, the two Sister-doctors are offering free medical consultations. The clinic, a
shabby old building with an excess of dark green paint covering walls and ceiling, is a hive of activity,
with patients popping in and out and going to the pharmacy to pick up their medicines, sold at cost.
Upstairs two paramedics are taking glucose tests of diabetic patients.
“We have a huge diabetic population right now, probably about 500, who come here once a month,”
Sister Mary Lou explains. “They get finger stick/glucose tests done by health promoters and adjustment of their treatment regime depending on their needs. But some of these patients would not have had any treatment at all because the health centers just don’t have the facilities.” The government clinic next door, she says, requires patients to buy syringes and cotton swabs to get vaccinated.
One of the main problems the Sisters address is malnourishment in children. They also treat conditions such as diarrhea, upper respiratory infections and skin diseases as well as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
Every week from Tuesday through Friday the Sisters leave the clinic to visit patients in rural villages. They carry glucometers to screen blood and refer diabetics back to the clinic. Meanwhile the clinic remains open for prescriptions, with health promoters on hand to treat patients with minor complaints.
The Sisters have also trained an extensive team of health promoters in the villages who can treat many common ailments among their neighbors. “We have 180 health promoters all over the department of San Marcos, from the mountains down to the coast,” Sister Mary Lou explains. “That is our way of working: to form promoters who are of and in the community and who can carry routine medicines at low cost.
We give six basic courses of four days each, spread over a year. Every two months we give a four-day
course, then in November, graduation, and a new group of about 20 starts again.”
Health promoters learn not only how to care for women with normal pregnancies but also to
recognize an abnormal pregnancy and refer the woman to a hospital in case she needs a cesarean section. The Sisters also teach the promoters to administer first aid.
Guatemala has been through difficult times over the last 35 years, including civil war and the genocide
of thousands of indigenous people, but through it all, the Sisters have remained. Sister Jane explains
why. “My focus was mission from the start,” she says, “and I think it’s the blending of the two (mission and being a doctor) that has allowed me to stay 50 years. The early 1980s were the worst years, but we always thought we could take more because the folks could take more, so how could you take less? If it wasn’t for the Gospel, I couldn’t be here!”
Today Guatemala is relatively safe compared to those dark years. Sisters Mary Lou and Jane continue
to offer their services tirelessly. “I have seen great change and I am optimistic about the future,” says
Sister Jane. “There are more and more physicians, some of whom are friends of mine, Guatemalans,
who have this perspective in community health, in working toward bettering the opportunities and the
accessibility of good medical care, and they are working toward that, and I find it very hopeful.”
Featured Image: Guatemalans pack the Maryknoll clinic in Catarina to receive quality health care, normally inaccessible to the poor.