A longtime friend who’d been on previous mission trips to Guatemala had told me, “Wait till you meet Iggy! You’ll love him!”
Iggy, short for Ignacious, is a name believed to signify independence, forthrightness, practicality. Good traits for a surgeon. The doctor admits during a pre-mission team meeting that he has two weaknesses: sometimes he’s unable to see if a problem is significant and he needs sleep.
We’ll learn firsthand that his self-assessment is accurate.
At another pre-mission trip, we’re given the lowdown on the shots and prophylactics we need, and guidelines about drinking water and eating fruit. Don’t! At the end of the meeting, the team leader asks the doctor to say a prayer.
We bow our heads. It’s obvious that Iggy has prayed before. He knows to praise God, to thank God, to ask God for guidance. I’m pondering the idea of a man of science also being a child of God, when what the doctor prays for next makes my head pop up and my eyelids spring open.
“Dear God, keep the devil away from us.”
As our meeting breaks up, the doctor tells me that right before every mission trip there are people who suddenly have an emergency at work, or who get sick, or can’t leave for some other unforeseen reason. I get it. The reason is Satan.
It’s 2:30 AM on the day we’re departing for Guatemala. We’re in our home church parking lot. We huddle in the chilly darkness next to vans packed to the roof with our carry-ons and 23 check-in bags crammed within an ounce of the weight limit with medicines, eyeglasses, stuffed animals, bibles, clothes and shoes. The team members are present and accounted for, except for one person. Iggy. He’s the last to show up.
Iggy suppresses a belch. “My stomach is upset.”
He’s the sole doctor on our team. We hope the antibiotic he’s taking does the job.
His diagnosis: “I think it was the jalapeño pepper in my breakfast,” he says.
On the three-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the tiny village of Tierra Linda, the view outside our open windows changes from urban confusion to cookie-cutter gated communities and then to pineapple and sugarcane fields. A volcano steams ominously on the northern horizon.
We set up the clinic in a cinderblock, tin-roofed school in the village. Plastic tarps separate areas where the doctor and nurses and translators listen to men, women and children describe their ailments.
Several of the villagers have problems caused by the acrid air. My eyes and throat burn from the miasma of wood smoke, trash fires, and who-knows-what emanating from the Bayer factory.
Iggy steps out of the clinic for a moment. He’s describing a type of hernia he’s never come across before. His face is animated, he gestures to his groin. He’s in his element.
“So what is it about being a surgeon?” I ask. “Is it the satisfaction of solving problems?”
If he was excited before, now he’s barely able to contain himself. His eyes light up, he pounds a fist into his hand and says, “When I was in med school, I learned that problems like high cholesterol don’t go away. When I realized that, that’s when I decided to be a surgeon. When I operate on someone, I make the problem go away. I cure people!”
The team leader pulls the doctor aside.
One man is so ill that he can’t make it to the clinic.
Iggy goes to the sick man’s dirt floor hut.
Iggy looks rattled when he returns. “The man’s liver is so far gone, he isn’t jaundiced anymore. He’s past that stage. His stomach is distended. I gave him some medications, but then they’ll run out.” Then the doctor gives a prognosis: “He’s not long for this world. I prayed over him.” The doctor is powerless to make the liver problem go away.
Seeing a doctor who appears to be disconsolate at another’s distress, and knowing that he prayed to a higher power on his patient’s behalf are novel experiences for me. In witnessing this man’s heartfelt, vulnerable moment, I do feel a kind of love for him.
During two days of sweating in tropical temperatures and high humidity, the team sees 900-some people. From heartburn to hernias, the medical staff treats the complaints as well as they can. The patients traveled to the clinic from five different villages. They’d waited in a line that trailed along the cobblestone road next to the imposing concrete wall that separates the school from the village. The sun beat down on them. Small electric fans pushed sultry air around the clinic rooms.
During a breather, Iggy says, “This puts things in perspective. I have patients that come to my office and complain, ‘I’ve been waiting for 10 minutes!’ ” He shakes his head. “These people have waited all day and they don’t complain.”
A nurse comments, “They’ve waited all their lives.”
We nod. There’s nothing else to be said after that.
None of us has slept well, if at all, since the beginning of our return trip to America, which started before 6AM. We’re not expecting to arrive at our home church’s parking lot until 2:30 AM the following morning. A day comprised of bus rides, van rides, and plane rides punctuated with waits and layovers, dulls the shine of international travel and cross-cultural experiences.
At last, we’re on American soil again. Miami Airport is the most disconcerting and chaotic aspect of the whole trip. Picture corpuscles coursing through tiny capillaries and that’s a good image of what thousands of travelers look like wending their way from arrival gates to baggage claim to customs to TSA scanners and so on and so forth. I agree with a teammate who says, “There’s too many steps.”
We’re in a huddle again. (One of our rules is always stay together.) We need to go to Gate D to board our connecting flight to Baltimore. A giant sign with arrows indicates we’re to board the skytrain. Iggy walks away from us to look at the airport map.
He returns. “I’m not taking the skytrain to Gate D,” he informs our team leader. “I’m walking. I saw the map and I’m walking. Gate D is just over there.” His face is tight.
“We should stay together,” the leader reminds Iggy.
“I saw the map. I’m walking!”
I turn to the doctor’s teenaged son, and mutter, “Your dad is putting his foot down.”
“He gets like that when he’s tired,” the boy explains, lips barely moving.
The leader reads the hard look on the doctor’s face and relents. “Use the buddy system. Dave, you go with Iggy.”
As Iggy and his buddy walk off, the leader decides we should all follow them and walk rather than ride the skytrain to Gate D.
We walk and walk. We come to a dead end. The only way to Gate D is the skytrain. We board the skytrain for a longish trip. The distance was not walkable, that’s for sure.
I don’t know if the doctor apologized to the team leader for his little snit or not. I guess Iggy had to pop and his choosing to do so in a safe place, over an issue of little to no consequence was prudent. Imagine the stress and frustration he endured seeing hundreds of people, some of whom he could treat, others for whom he foresaw a dismal future.
Stars freckle the navy sky above our church parking lot. Goodbyes feel awkward for me, so I throw my bags into the backseat. Sitting in my car with the keys in the ignition, I think, “I can’t leave the team without saying goodbye.” I get out of my car and walk over to my teammates who are splitting off toward their cars.
Iggy strides up and sweeps me into an exuberant, one-armed hug.
“I love you,” he exclaims.
And he’s gone.