Posted by: Project MicroMundo | June 2, 2011

Heading Home

I know, I know, I’m the worst blogger ever.  I wish I had had the time and the energy over the last several months to keep this up to date, but the truth is that after a day of work (much of which is spent writing blog posts for Mayan Families), I’ve rarely got the mental juice to come up with anything worth sharing.  But I’m headed home next week, and as I was packing up my house, tying up loose ends at work, and saying goodbye to friends, I’ve realized that there are a thousand things I could have written.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say them all now.  There are individual stories–inspirational, heartbreaking, horrifying, and sometimes all three at once–on the Family Aid Blog, if you’d like to catch up on some of what has been keeping us busy, or see who is in need now.  All of them have affected me, but there’s one that stands out in my memory, and if you read MicroMundo back when it was a real blog, you might remember Elyda’s story too.  It’s a hard story to tell, but one from which there is a lot to learn.

Lake Atitlan Sunset

A Lake Atitlan sunset. (Photo credit--Carolina Uechi)

I didn’t really know Elyda.  By the time I met her, she was already mostly hidden beneath a white sheet, too weak to respond to our questions on her own.  After she died, her husband described her to me as ‘la mujer generosa,’ so that’s how I like to think of her–the generous woman.  Just a few weeks earlier, she had been a healthy young wife and mother, pregnant for the second time.  She and her husband, Marco, appeared to have been doing everything right.  They didn’t have much, but they had saved their money and planned their family so that Marco’s salary as a carpenter would be enough to support them and their 7 year old son, Josias, and they were ready for another baby.

When Elyda became a little jaundiced and doctors told her she had a gallstone, they emptied their small savings to take her to a private clinic for the surgery–they didn’t want to take their chances in a public hospital.  The surgeon, a supposed specialist, made a series of mistakes during the surgery, and Elyda’s baby died.  The surgeon knew the extent of the damage, and that the baby had not survived, but he chose not to tell Elyda or Marco, and sent her home as planned.  When they called later that day, he told them that the pain she was experiencing was normal.

Marco and Josias

Elyda's husband, Marco, and son Josias

Frustrated and worried, they went to a different doctor, who performed surgery to try to fix the very serious damage.  Afterwards, she needed an Intensive Care Unit.  Instead, she was sent home the next day, without follow up or proper medication.  That’s when I met her.  Though she looked bad, the doctor had assured everyone that she was on the road to recovery. Her family followed his instructions to the letter, unaware that we were wasting precious days waiting for a recovery that both surgeons knew wasn’t going to happen on its own.

When she took a sudden turn for the worse and we realized something needed to be done, she was already too weak to survive the several-hour trip to an ICU.  A clinic here in Pana treated her around the clock for several days, and performed multiple surgeries to try to save her life.  Her husband and her sister took turns at her side.  We organized emergency blood donors, funding, and a specialist to come and consult with the doctor here.  Everyone involved fought with everything they had, including Elyda; she survived, seemingly on sheer force of will, long after most of her body had shut down.

I will never, ever forget Marco’s voice on the phone, early on a weekend morning, telling me that she had died.  It was his pain that left such a strong impression on my memory.  For the first time, I felt truly powerless.  We had done everything we could, used every tool that we had, and we lost.  Marco had done everything right, from before his wife got sick until the day that she died, and it wasn’t enough.  And this wasn’t a case of the universe deciding that it was her time to go.  She didn’t have terminal cancer.  She didn’t have a sudden stroke.  She had a treatable, routine problem, and she should still be alive.  The reason she isn’t is because of irresponsible individuals working within a system that was never designed to protect patients like Elyda.  The circumstances–the man-made, unjust circumstances–were just too much to overcome, and nobody with any power to change that equation was on her side.

Norma Walking

A year ago, this little girl couldn't even roll over, and with an abusive mother, her future didn't look too bright. Today, because social services and Mayan Families were on her side, she is running with her big sister.

One of the fundamental disagreements in politics–and it really goes beyond politics–revolves around this issue.  There are many who believe that anyone at the bottom of the ladder can, if they try hard enough and do things right, overcome all obstacles and eventually climb up the ladder.  The people who think this way–who are often those who might have the power to change things–refuse to accept or admit that circumstances are ever ‘just too much to overcome,’ and they use that as a justification for remaining on the side of broken systems, rather than standing up for the people that are victimized by them.

The only things that could reasonably have changed the outcome in Elyda’s case are 1) If the doctors had decided to be honest and responsible; 2) If the medical system was designed to better protect patients; or 3) If the legal system were effective enough to punish and deter malpractice.  Marco and Elyda had no control over any of those things; to survive, she needed someone with some power on her side, whether it was one of the doctors that she dealt with directly, or some hospital administrator or national legislator that she never met. Yet too many people in positions of power refuse to side with the Elydas of the world.

As a literate citizen of the developed world, you are in a position of power.  Whether it is with your vote, your dollar, or your life’s work, the decisions you make affect those less fortunate than you are, whether that’s in your home town or halfway across the world.  Be on their side.

I grew up in America.  I love the ideal of the self-made (wo)man, pulling him/herself up by the bootstraps.  I’m not saying it can’t happen or that we shouldn’t strive for it.  But please, please, don’t be fooled by the myth that it’s always possible.  Some circumstances are insurmountable, and sometimes people are truly powerless in the face of the systems society has created.  If we don’t want their stories to end–to continue ending–in tragedies like Elyda’s, we have to acknowledge that fact, and accept our responsibility to help.  We have to be on their side.


  1. Steph,
    WELCOME HOME!!! Your “headed home” blog brought tears to my eyes. Rest assured that I, and I’m sure many others, will continue to support Mayan Families.
    Hope to see you soon!
    Eileen (Jessica’s Mom)

    • Stephanie, Thanks for all you managed to write. Your analysis is right, and your plea well put. May your work and writing bear much fruit for the powerless of the world. Love, Catherine

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