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UT Physicians Team Provides Care in Guatemala

Written By: Melissa McDonald, UT Physicians | Updated: March 7, 2017
Guatemala Mission

In January, a team of UT Physicians volunteers traveled to Guatemala on a medical mission trip planned by Faith in Practice, a non-profit organization. Philip Johnson, M.D., an internal medicine specialist with UT Physicians, led the journey to bring health care to an underserved population in Central America.

With medical supplies on-hand, the team of 50, including six from UT Physicians and one student and two residents from McGovern Medical School, examined more than 2,300 patients over four days. Lien-Thuy Nguyen, a UT Physicians physician assistant, recalled seeing hundreds of people lined up to receive care when they arrived in a village. “You don’t forget that image,” said Nguyen. “It was mostly women and children in line. We saw pregnant women who hadn’t received any prenatal or postpartum care. There were babies born with congenital issues who needed surgeries and therapies. There is a lot of poor nutrition and malnutrition.”

Dr. Johnson examines a patient in a Guatemalan village.
Dr. Johnson examines a patient in a Guatemalan village.

One day, Dr. Johnson recalled a woman coming in with neighbors carrying her children on lawn chairs. Both children had cerebral palsy and had no way to get around. “We assembled wheelchairs and fit them to the patients,” said Dr. Johnson. “The mother really needed some assistance while her husband is at work. The wheelchairs will help her. She won’t have to carry the children every place she goes. She can now take them outside with her and they can more easily get around. It’s about quality of life, too.”

For Nguyen, it was a 12-year-old patient that stands out in her mind. “She was complaining of severe back pain radiating down her legs,” explained Nguyen. “After speaking with her, we learned that she had to help her mother carry buckets of water five miles every day from a well to her home. These are things we don’t experience back home.”

You never forget these types of trips, according to Dr. Johnson. Over the last 12 years, he and his wife, Linda, have been leading medical mission trips to Guatemala. “The first time Linda saw Guatemala was on our honeymoon,” said Dr. Johnson, with a little laugh. “My first trip was in high school. I was working with fellow students that helped people in Central America. It was very inspirational to me. That work led me to medical school.”

Dr. Johnson and Nguyen encourage other professionals in the medical community to get involved. “It is a very simple form of medicine,” said Dr. Johnson. “The patient is truly at the heart of everything you are doing. It inspires me. It really does. I want to continue to make a difference in my field. It rejuvenates my work.”

UTHealth providers
left to right: Dr. Steven Mays; Dr. Aracely Vasquez; Twyla Brack, medical assistant; Dr. Chelsea Fong; Dr. Robin Hardwicke; Kim Pate, 4th year medical student; Dr. Phil Johnson; Lien-Thuy Nguyen, physician assistant; Dr. Omowunmi Aibana

“We as health care providers, should not forget that our profession consists of compassion, helping and healing,” said Nguyen. And, the work does not end there. In May, Dr. Johnson and his fellow volunteers will return to Guatemala for follow-up surgeries. Out of the more than 2,000 patients seen, about 15 percent needed surgical procedures. “Patients and their families are very grateful for the services Faith in Practice provides,” said Dr. Johnson. “Without these volunteer services, many Guatemalans would have nowhere else to turn.”

Along with Dr. Johnson and Nguyen, UT Physicians volunteers included Steven Mays, M.D., dermatologist; Omowunmi Aibana, M.D., internal medicine specialist; Aracely Vasquez, M.D., internal medicine resident with McGovern Medical School; Twyla Brack, medical assistant; Chelsea Fong, M.D., obstetrics and gynecology resident with McGovern Medical School; Kim Pate, McGovern Medical School student; Robin Hardwicke, Ph.D., nurse practitioner, and many additional volunteers.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.