September 26, 2004

The Best That You Can Do

How I Lost My Star Wars Pillow
Almost two years ago, I hustled 15 sick Guatemalans down a skinny city sidewalk to the hospital. The village bus dropped us off around sunset, that awful hour when vendors dismantle their vegetable booths, villagers ride rusty trucks back up the mountain and oblivious rich kids zip past on motor scooters.

In all the commotion, I didn’t even notice when my Star Wars pillow slipped out of sleeping bag and was lost forever in gutter between the bus terminal and Nicholas Cruz Hospital.

We had come from Miramundo, one of the fifty villages clustered along the mountains outside the city of Jalapa. My neighbor, Cesar Lopez, kept pace with me. He wore a dirty cowboy hat and boots, the campesino uniform. His wife carried their sick baby under a factory-made blanket. There are no Indian-weave textiles in this Latino corner of eastern Guatemala.

A few families camped out on the sidewalk outside the lime-green building, waiting for the American doctors to open the doors in the morning. For the first time in my year as a Peace Corps volunteer, my gringo status actually helped me. Thousands of Guatemalans came to see the Advancing Medicine in Latin America (AMLA) doctors every year, but my group breezed right past security.

Inside, 42 American volunteers rushed around, unpacking a weeks’ worth of supplies. Dr. Brad Blackwell appeared, a lanky blond with sunglasses still dangling around his neck. He assigned doctors to examine all the villagers, but he stayed to look at Cesar’s baby.

They unwrapped the skinny baby underneath the blanket. He didn’t make a sound when. Blackwell touched him. There was a cyst the size of a half-cantaloupe on his back. “He was born this way, he can’t even crawl,” Cesar explained.
Different doctors looked at the baby, but they all kept quiet. I was sure they could perform a simple operation and the baby would walk, just like the movies. Dr. Blackwell finally decided: “Tell them we can’t operate, it would kill the baby. He’ll never walk, and probably die of spinal meningitis soon. We can’t do anything. Tell them that.”
I explained in bumbling Spanish how the cyst was a birth defect, how the bean and tortillas village diet didn’t give the baby enough vitamins in the womb. He kept interrupting me, asking, “But what can they do?”

I stopped short before telling Cesar everything. My ten minutes in the hospital hadn’t prepared me for this. “It’s serious, very serious,” I said, but I never told him that his baby would die.

That night I slept on my rolled up jacket, because I lost my Star Wars pillow. I had carried that thing around since grade school. Luke Skywalker perched in the middle of my pillow, waving his lightsaber toward heaven. My hero’s picture faded over the years, surviving sleepover camps, slumber parties, college, girlfriends and fifteen years of mixed up dreams. All those years, I couldn’t let it go.

The Best That You Can Do
I spent most of that week in a make-shift plywood examining room with Dr. Kelly Swanson. The brown-haired pediatrician loved to tell me jokes so I could translate them for the children. Like most of the AMLA doctors, she came from Chicago’s Advocate General Lutheran Hospital.

They brought 42 volunteers that year; all the doctors, nurses and residents paid their own way for the trip. They managed to treat 3,000 patients in one mad week. We probably saw 150 patients ourselves.

Halfway through the week, a security guard came all the way from Guatemala City to see us. He worked 12-hour shifts outside a fried-chicken franchise, guarding the restaurant with a shotgun. In Guatemala, fast food companies charge American prices, making them some of the richest businesses in the country.

He explained his symptoms in huge huffs of Spanish, like he expected me to say he once dying once he stopped talking. His stomach always hurt, and fierce headaches made him dizzy at work.

Dr. Swanson nodded, “That’s acid reflex. Does he eat a lot of greasy food?” I didn’t even bother to translate, I just giggled. What else would a security guard at a fried chicken place eat?

We told him to drink more water and eat vegetables for lunch. For the headaches, she pulled out a box of overstock neon sunglasses from the States. The guard solemnly replaced his cowboy hat, wearing a new pair of cheesy neon sunglasses.
The doctors gave me pages of medical terms in Spanish, but I never used it. The villagers didn’t know those big words either. Listening to people describe stomach aches, menstrual cramps and headaches over and over, I memorized the simplest words for mundane sufferings. We gave out 60,000 vitamins and more Tylenol then I’ve seen in my entire life.
In most cases, that was the best we could do.

How to Save a Pig
What’s it like to live in a village? That’s the classic small-talk theme when you mention Peace Corps at a party. I always want to tell those people one story in particular, but I never do.

One night Rosa Gomez sent for me because she had a problem with her pig. Her family lived down a muddy path that split off from the main dirt road. I went down past warped wood shacks with dinner-time cookfires glowing inside.

Dona Rosa had mated her pig too young. The pregnant pig went into labor that morning, but her insides were too small to push out the babies. A clump of farmers stood around the pig, offering all sorts of advice. The veterinarian was too expensive, and I was the best Rosa could manage.

Eventually somebody decided that I had the skinniest wrists and that I could save the pig. I wasn’t going to act like a tourist in front of those farmers. I put on a rubber glove, and they slicked my arm with cooking oil.

With two fingertips, I brushed top of one piglet’s bitty head inside the mother. I was so close to those squirming babies, but I couldn’t pull them out. The next day Dona Rosa butchered her pig. It was pure economics: the babies would die inside their mother and poison the meat. There was no other choice.

That story drives me crazy, because I want to tell people that I rescued those babies. I don’t usually tell people about all the times I failed. There’s a whole Kennedy-idealism mystique around Peace Corps, and those sad stories don’t fit.
When I started, I imagined myself growing a beard or getting muscles or acquiring some beatific glow. But I came back looking exactly the same. You spend most of your time in Peace Corps losing strange battles like that one, stories you won’t tell anyone.

Villages can be a lot of things, but I won’t forget the shit-smell on the straw floor while I kneeled beside a doomed animal. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to explain that.

What People Deserve
No Americans drink the water in Guatemala. Each year the rainy season washes trash, farm chemicals, fecal matter and millions of micro-bacteria into the water supply. It’s hard to avoid getting sick.

In the hospital cafeteria, the doctors keep compulsive rituals to stay healthy. You wash your hands with tap water and surgical soap first, then towel off with sanitized paper. After that, you rub in a handful of evaporating alcohol lotion. When that dries, you can eat.

But the food, Sweet Jesus, the food!

Greedy Peace Corps volunteers fight each other for translating spots with visiting doctors, just to eat the kind of food we ate back in America. Every night the doctors spread out some Midwest delicacy like Sloppy Joes or macaroni and cheese. They had a whole table of condiments, three bowls of potato chips and bigger bowl of finger-sized sweets. That cafeteria was an American cocoon, everybody inside spoke English and ate like it was Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house.

Dr. Blackwell told me this once: “This experience helps me appreciate the small things like a clean shower, brushing your teeth in the sink and flushing toilet paper down the toilet.” Sometimes I felt bitter about the doctors. They had one week and then they went home. Their stories wrapped up as neatly as a picture post card, but we stayed in Guatemala with the sick people.

After the doctors left, the people in the village treated me with a new respect. Sometimes I caught myself getting big-headed ideas about myself. I thought that I deserved all that food and attention. I thought I deserved the bowl of chocolates while my neighbors ate tortillas and beans in the next room.
One thing I learned is that nobody deserves anything.

Curious George
The doctors operated on my neighbor Theresa Gomez, and they found three-year-old cancer in her stomach. They told me she would die within the month. To make things easier for the family, the volunteers gave her flowers, balloons, storybooks and toys.

Before the surgery, she was stooped over like an old woman. I hardly recognized her when we I saw her at the end of the week. She had this big hopeful smile, full of missing teeth. Dr. Blackwell explained her pain medication to me, telling me to make sure she had enough before she died.

Her husband Vacillio wanted her to spend her last days at home. Theresa slept while we rode the chicken bus back to the village, and I argued with her husband the whole time. He refused to tell his wife that she was dying. I was stuck in the middle of an ethical mess—the doctors couldn’t tell her she was dying, it was up to the translators to do that. Now Vacillio wouldn’t let me.

“I don’t want her to be scared,” he told me. For the next few months, I never told her anything.
Around Easter-time that year, Theresa’s pain got worse and I was sure she was dying. She had lived longer than anyone expected, and her heavy-duty painkillers ran out. I begged the hospital for more medicine, but all they gave me was a baggie of Tylenols.

When I visited their wood shack with a dirt floor, I felt like a character inside a grainy Save the Children photo in a magazine back home. Theresa was sleeping, so I played catch with her four-year-old son Jose. He had perpetual snot dripping down his face, and wiped it on his muddy T-shirt.

Jose brought me a shiny yellow copy of Curious George that the doctors had given him. I spent a lot of time with Theresa’s family, but I always had trouble keeping up conversation. It was too overwhelming sometimes, and I felt better reading the storybook. Nobody in his family could read, so I was the first person to share his present.

We spent an hour reading about that mischievous monkey living in a painted world without consequences. I memorized the book when I was kid, but this time through was different. When the man in a yellow hat comes crashing through the jungle in his colonial khakis to capture Curious George, it bothered me. Was I the man in the yellow hat—a gringo voyeur stealing stories to write back home? Or was I Curious George—a boy yanked from home and playing around in places I didn’t belong?

I never decided, and Theresa didn’t die. Somehow she’s still living, two years later, with a stomach full of cancer.

Her son always loved the scene where the Curious George grabs a handful of balloon strings and floats up to the sky. Jose will probably never learn how to read, just because he happened to be born in that village. One year later, I took an airplane home to the United States, just because I happened to be born there.

I know that something very important happened to me in that village, but I can’t explain it. Writing the story down, I feel like that little monkey, clinging to a handful of fragile balloons, stuck in the sky between two different countries.



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