Refuge International

Improving lives through healthcare, nutrition, clean water, and education.

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Katarina with her wooden prosthesisRefuge International volunteers met Katarina for the first time at the Chocolá clinic in 2015. After standing in a long line of patients waiting her turn to see the doctor, Katarina limped to our exam table and lifted her skirt to reveal a beautifully carved wooden leg, extremely worn and cracked from years of use. When Katarina was a young teen, she was in a car accident and subsequently lost her leg to gangrene. Now in her late 20s, her homemade leg had become extremely painful to use due to its significant weight and repairs that were made with wires and metal plates, which consequently rubbed on her leg stump. In order to seat her leg into the wooden prosthetic, Katarina used a belt, wrapped tightly around the stump, then fed through a hole drilled into the wood. She pulled for all she was worth to fit her stump into the socket.

Katarina with her new legThrough sheer courage and tenacity to seek a better way of life, Katarina left her very remote village alone and made her way to the Refuge clinic. Katarina believed if she could get a new prosthetic leg, not only would she be able to work, she might even have hopes of marrying one day. Typically, a prosthetic leg with an articulating knee costs $7,000-$10,000, an unattainable amount to someone like Katarina. However, Refuge International volunteers decided to contacted Transitions, a non-profit organization in Guatemala, and found that a prosthesis could be purchased for Katarina for just $2,086. Refuge volunteers immediately created a GoFundMe campaign and in just 13 days, 23 generous individuals contributed the full amount. Refuge is in the process of getting Katarina her new prosthetic leg, and we are so thankful to our community for giving Katarina a fresh start and the opportunity to build a whole new life!

ElenaIn September 2014, 6-year-old Elena Cocom walked into our clinic in Chocolá with a mass the size of a baseball above her right eye. Six months prior, Elena’s father, Domingo, discovered a shallow scrape on his daughter's forehead and dismissed it as a typical wound for a normal, active girl. Their village doctor prescribed mild pain medicine and believed it was an infection that would eventually heal. Over the course of two months, Elena’s scrape grew into a rigid mass that began encroaching on her eyesight and Domingo knew it was time to seek out another medical evaluation for Elena. Domingo, who speaks very little Spanish, had heard of the work Dr. Castillo and Refuge were doing in Chocolá and the family traveled two hours by foot from their rural village to reach the clinic.

Elena's surgeryNervously clenching her father’s hand, Elena allowed Deborah Bell and Dr. Eveland (Dr. E) to examine her eye. At first glance, knowing fungus-related tropical diseases are extremely common in Guatemala, Deborah and Dr. E thought this indeed might be an infection. However, when Dr. E performed surgery to remove the mass he discovered it was not an infection but rather a solid tumor. The team also found several growths on the lymph nodes in her neck. Elena was suffering from a malignant growth that was spreading cancer through her body. Dr. E extracted samples from the mass so that a pathologist could determine the type of cancer they were dealing with. The team knew Elena would need to be treated at the National Children’s Hospital in Guatemala but having Dr. Castillo and the clinic closer to Domingo and Elena’s village meant that our team could follow the case and help ensure Elena received the care she needed. Elena went to the National Hospital for several treatments but, tragically, it was not enough. She has since passed away despite her brave fight.

Angel Hernandez-TorresDespite prior surgical procedures, Angel Hernandez-Torres had two large cysts on his legs that had grown back for a third time. So once again, Angel went to his local hospital to have them removed. He handed the clerk his money, took a seat in the waiting room and waited. And waited some more. He waited until he was told to go home; no money was returned and no operation was performed. That's how it sometimes goes in a national system that is overburdened and under-funded.

Angel kissing one of his care providersSeveral months later, still needing medical care, Angel showed up at our clinic in San Raymundo with hopes to be evaluated by one of our doctors. In fact, our team was able to remove the cysts that same day, and by that evening, Angel was recovering nicely from surgery. Throughout the day, Angel entertained team members and his translators with jokes and funny stories. He hugged his doctors during consults and kissed nurses on the cheek. Normally, you might expect to see someone become angry and bitter due to a system that had let him down time and time again. Instead, Angel was full of love and more than happy to “lift up” those that were here from another country to bring him the relief he so desperately needed.

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Refuge International met Abner Cordova and his family during a mission trip in San Raymundo, Guatemala in February, 2018. The Cordovas live in the municipality of Baja Verapaz, a rural area approximately 2 hours from San Raymundo, where most families (including the Cordovas) farm vegetables and grains.

The Cordovas told us that in January 2017, Abner began experiencing significant leg pain when walking, running and playing. Doctors at the national hospital discovered that Abner had osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, which resulted in the amputation of his left leg near the hip. Today, Abner continues oral chemotherapy treatments and his current scans are clear of the cancer.

 Prior to his diagnosis and amputation, Abner loved working with his father in the fields and the admiration he has for his parents shines in his eyes. His mother, Rosa, smiled shyly as she shared just how active her son is – showing us videos of Abner playing soccer (on crutches) with his best friend and riding his plastic tri-bike. When we asked Abner what his favorite subject is in school, a proud smile quickly spread across his face and he replied “physical activity”.

test%2F1520366286017-IMG-20180222-WA0019.jpgWhile Abner’s operations were performed free of charge at the national children’s hospital, as part of the country’s healthcare system, his oral chemotherapy and other medications cost the family hundreds of dollars each month, a stark reality for a family that resides in a region where most live on less than $5 per day. Providing their son with a prosthetic leg was financially impossible for the Cordovas. 

Refuge International reached out to Transitions Foundation, a non-profit organization in Antigua whose mission is to mobilize people with disabilities, and we learned the cost to provide Abner with a prosthetic leg would be $4,447 USD 

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(Transitions offered to contribute additional funds to build the prosthetic). In contrast, the type of prosthetic limb that Abner needed would have actually cost several thousand dollars more in the States.

Abner y papasThanks to the generosity of many in the Refuge community of supporters, we were able to give this clever, energetic little boy a new lease on life! The smile on Abner's face (and those of his parents) as he once again walked on two legs is one of the reasons we are here – to provide hope and resources to those that otherwise would have to do without.