Serving communities at home and abroad

Serving communities at home and abroad

by Max Johnston

Dr. John Nguyen with his operating room (OR) team in Guatemala. Back row from L-R: Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist Yuri Chavez and Dr. Nguyen. Front row from L-R: Surgery First Assistant Kara Alford and OR Nurse Joe Brinkman.

Between February 17-25, 2023, Dr. John Nguyen — general surgeon at Harney District Hospital — traveled a total of around 5,200 miles on a medical mission to Central America. He volunteered with Faith In Practice — a Christian nonprofit based in Houston, Texas that regularly sends surgery and clinic teams to various locations in Guatemala. Dr. Nguyen was one of three surgeons on Team Raymer — a surgery team led by Dr. Jordan Raymer of Florence, Ore.

After approximately eight hours of flights and bus trips, the team arrived at Hospital Hilario Galindo, in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. Dr. Nguyen spoke of one man — who upon spotting the bus of surgeons and medical professionals — said, “I’ve been waiting a whole week for you to come.” Dr. Nguyen added, “He was just so happy.”

This man is not alone. On their webpage titled “Why Guatemala,” Faith In Practice explains that the healthcare system in Guatemala is broken. The national hospitals that exist operate on very limited hours, patients are required to pay for all costs past consultation, and it can take multiple days of walking for patients to reach a hospital. These issues — combined with the fact that almost 50 percent of Guatemala’s population lives under the poverty line — result in limited to no medical access for a large portion of the country’s people. So for this man, and for any patient, the sight of a Faith In Practice team is a miracle that they might have waited for their entire life.

For Team Raymer, days at Hospital Hilario Galindo started at 6 a.m. and typically didn’t end until after dark. They served patients, one after the other, for 13 or more hours each day. The team performed a variety of general surgeries, from intra-abdominal organs (such as livers and gallbladders) to hernias and soft-tissue tumors. While at Hospital Hilario Galindo, Team Raymer saw around 50 patients across four days of surgery.

Long before Team Raymer even left the U.S., patients in Guatemala were prescreened by a professional from a clinic team. If their condition was appropriate for the size and equipment of the hospital, they were assigned to Team Raymer, or one of the other surgery teams.

Dr. Nguyen poses for a photo with Dr. Eric Anderson (left) outside of Hospital Hilario Galindo. Dr. Anderson is a general surgeon from Stevens Point, Wisc. who joined Nguyen on the medical mission to Guatemala.

Dr. Nguyen poses for a photo with Dr. Eric Anderson (left) outside of Hospital Hilario Galindo. Dr. Anderson is a general surgeon from Stevens Point, Wisc. who joined Nguyen on the medical mission to Guatemala.“If it goes well, you can serve more patients,” Dr. Nguyen said, “but difficult cases require a lot more time, and these cases tend to be really difficult. Not just because of limited or old equipment, but because of the difficulty of the anatomy.”

He explained that patients may have issues present for many years before they find Faith In Practice, which makes procedures more challenging for the surgeon.

One of Dr. Nguyen’s patients was a 26-year-old woman who desperately needed gallbladder surgery. After meeting with her, Dr. Nguyen noticed that she limped when she walked. The patient explained that she sprained her ankle while running back and forth between making tortillas and grilling corn. Although she was coping with gallbladder issues and a sprained ankle, she couldn’t take time to heal. She had to keep working two jobs to survive.

Another patient asked Dr. Nguyen if she could walk after having her hernia surgery. While he would encourage a walk around the house or yard, she had a much longer distance in mind. Dr. Nguyen recalled being astonished once he realized what she meant.

“She told me that, every day, she walks into this small village to check on everybody, see what they need, and then walks back,” he explained. “The walk is three hours each way.”

Though Team Raymer would’ve liked to care for all the patients who came to Hospital Hilario Galindo, there was a time at the end of the team’s mission where the line of patients had to be cut off. However, Dr. Nguyen said this doesn’t mean they’ll have to start at the back of the line again. He explained that staff keep track of the line, and patients who don’t make the cutoff will be first when the next team arrives.

Before and after their surgery, patients are provided food and a place to stay at one of the attendant guest houses — Casa de Fe or Casa de Milagros. This gives them time to more properly prepare for (and recover from) surgery, reducing the risk of complication. All of Faith In Practice’s programs are free for patients, as the nonprofit works to assist those most in need of their help.

Overall, Dr. Nguyen talked very highly about his experience in Guatemala, and greatly encouraged other medical professionals to join medical missions.

“This really is a spring cleaning for your soul,” he said, “and it brings you back to why you do medicine in the first place.”

Dr. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, had minimal access to healthcare until his family immigrated to the United States. He said he always wanted to go into medicine to give back and help those in need. He came to Harney District Hospital in November 2018, after 10 years of practicing in Michigan. When asked why he chose to make the move to Harney County, Dr. Nguyen said it was so he could have a better relationship with his patients.

“In a rural practice, you can bond with your patients more. You see fewer patients, but you get to spend more time with each one,” he explained.

Dr. Nguyen also enjoys spending time outdoors — trail running, fishing, and camping. Before he came to Harney District Hospital, he went on multiple camping trips in Oregon and fell in love with the area.

When asked if he would go on a medical mission again, Dr. Nguyen immediately said “yes,” adding that he hopes to go with Team Raymer yearly.

Faith In Practice is accepting applications for volunteers who would like to join or form a team. You don’t have to be a medical professional to contribute to the cause. There are several nonmedical roles for volunteers — including interpreters, spiritual leaders, photographers, and writers. One can also contribute financially by donating to either Faith In Practice or to a particular team. Team members travel to Guatemala on their own dime, but their team’s raised funds are used for various other expenses like supplies, medications, personal protective equipment, transportation, and patient care.

Visit for more information on programs, volunteers, and donations.

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