In the mountains of Mexico
Chico State student nurses discover they’re the real beneficiaries of a health-care visit to a Mixtec village
Technology and modernization have become such a huge part of our culture that we often forget there are still people on this earth who have never heard of a microwave oven or Britney Spears.
One of these places is a tiny village tucked away deep in the southern mountains of Mexico, also known as the Mixtec (pronounced MEESH-tec) region of Oaxaca State. Like many Mixtec villages, this one is so isolated its residents still speak their indigenous language. Homes scattered on the few dirt roads in town are makeshift, with only a kitchen and maybe two bedrooms to house the several generations living under one roof, sometimes with only a sheet separating bedrooms. Some residents are fortunate enough to have concrete floors, while others simply walk on packed earth.
Women wear conservative tops and long skirts in this deeply religious society as they pump water from the spigot in their front yard or carry it miles from the river. Children collect sticks to make a fire to boil the water so it can be safely consumed.
There are no television sets, washing machines, or cell phones, but the people here don’t appear to have the time to wish for a richer standard of living. Life is about survival in this remote part of southern Mexico, as most residents are subsistence farmers living day to day.
Residents became excited when the first norteamericanos to visit the tiny village piled out of their vans. They had come to provide health care to these villagers who otherwise had little or no access to care.
These weren’t missionary health-care professionals, however, but rather Chico State nursing students who wanted to spend their winter break putting their skills to good use.
Nine students and one faculty member spent 10 days in January in the village, treating ailments ranging from parasites to burns. They passed out vitamins, distributed sanitation kits, gave health consultations and treated minor injuries, skin infections and malnutrition.
“One girl had a very bad burn that looked like it would have gotten badly infected if we hadn’t treated it,” said Valerie Ziemer, a 23-year-old nursing student.
The conditions they worked in were far removed from the sanitized hospitals they’d trained in. They worked for several hours in the hot sun, usually with no breaks. Bathrooms were one luxury the group missed dearly.
“They basically dug a hole in the ground and put branches on each side,” nursing student Amanda Cholewa, 25, said. “It wasn’t very sturdy. We avoided going to the bathroom as long as we could.”
Although conditions appeared less than perfect in the village, the students were surprised by the loving and happy environment they encountered.
“You go in thinking that you are going to save the world and they are going to be so happy that you are there,” said Becky Stutte, 23, another nursing student. “But they seem very content with their lifestyle.”
The students were amazed at how close families were, even though they were crammed into small living spaces and faced with huge amounts of chores to do every day.
Watching the harshness of the villagers’ day-to-day life and their ability to keep smiling resonated with the group.
“A huge part of the nursing program here is about being open-minded and culturally sensitive,” Cholewa said. “This trip really drove that point home.”
Although the students went in believing they would be providing essential help to a devastated population, they were the ones who left with appreciation. “They did more for us then we did for them,” said Ziemer, who acknowledged she’d been humbled by the experience.
Two translators—one to translate from Mixtec to Spanish and another to translate the Spanish to English, and vice versa—were needed for each interaction between nurse and patient. Ziemer said she gained a new appreciation for the challenge facing her Spanish-speaking patients back home.
“I used to get frustrated and wonder why they didn’t learn English, but being down there and not knowing their language gave me a different perspective on how they feel,” Ziemer said. “It made me want to learn Spanish even more, so people wouldn’t feel neglected or uncomfortable.”
A moment that will always stick out in Ziemer’s memory is the day the group passed out new clothes to the village residents. “Their eyes would just light up when we would hold up a new T-shirt to their bodies,” she said. “Some people went home and changed right away just to show off their new clothes.”
The students also made presentations at an orphanage on the importance of hygiene practices. One observation that surprised them was that the children in the orphanage were well taken care of and obviously loved.
“A lot if the orphans were better off than the other children we saw in the community,” Cholewa said. “That’s something you wouldn’t find here in America.”
While the group insists the villagers were more than welcoming, there was some apprehension about trusting the foreigners. A nasty rumor had spread that Americans were responsible for abducting and harvesting the organs of children in the area. It made some residents wary of the blonde heads in big trucks passing out antibiotics.
“Some people from the area wouldn’t even come down,” said Janelle Gardner, a nursing faculty member who chaperoned the trip. “But hopefully their fears have been eased and they will seek treatment if a group returns in the future.”
The students got their fair share of ailments, including scabies, bugs burrowing into their skin and even a scorpion bite, which made its female victim’s leg turn purple.
“Everyone had a real sense of humor about it,” Gardner said. “The students really rolled with the punches.”
Gardner has traveled all over the world doing volunteer work, and she is the main reason this trip took place. She worked hard with Chico State and Sigma Theta Tau International, a professional nursing society that co-sponsored the trip, to get everything in order.
It’s a huge responsibility, Gardner said, but it’s very rewarding to see the changes that take place in the students. “It was very life-changing for them. It gave them more confidence in what they know about nursing and what they are capable of doing in the field.”