Dr. Jose Israel Hernandez does not remember having a life-changing moment when God gave him the call to medical ministry. "The Lord was working in a transitional way," he says. "Even though I was working every day as a physician, it wasn't enough."
Slowly on, Dr. Hernandez and his wife, Gengly, began to notice a greater need in the outlying communities surrounding San Pedro, Guatemala, where they lived. Dr. Hernandez knew it was God nudging him to make a "faith step," as he calls it. Dr. Hernandez had a busy medical practice, treating people from the city and the rural areas, but he remembers thinking, Am I doing all I can for these people? He needed enough income to support his family, but he really wanted to help in a way that would make an impact.
As a step of faith, he traveled to a rural village and began giving lectures in the church. Those who were interested came to hear him talk about disease prevention for women. Being successful there, he began speaking in a school in a poor neighborhood. He spoke simply about health. He explained the causes of illnesses and why they were suffering from skin infections. "The adults and children saw that with some simple measures, they could prevent disease," Dr. Hernandez says.
After a year of teaching basic health, Dr. Hernandez was seeing fewer patients from those rural villages. "I asked them if they were going to a different clinic, but they were simply doing what we had taught them!" There were 60% fewer cases of diarrhea that year.
Realizing that he would need more resources to continue the work, he contacted Luke Society Director, Dr. Axel Suquen, in Patzun, Guatemala. Dr. Suquen recommended him to the Latin America Regional Coordinator, Dr. Apolos Landa and Executive Director, Dr. Wrede Vogel. From there, a relationship with the Luke Society began, and the Accion Medica Integral (AMI) San Lucas clinic was opened.
Dr. Hernandez expected that many more churches would open their doors to community health. However, after four years of partnership with the Luke Society, only two churches have responded. "We have a heritage of keeping our religion inside the church," he explained. "We are praying for God to touch the hearts of the church leaders so the Gospel will reach outside the church so we can be an expression of the true Gospel."
But one pastor, Pastor Armando Hernandez, realized the importance of what Jose Israel was trying to teach. He encouraged his congregation to attend health meetings, and the community has been confident about the results. They began with a diagnostic survey to analyze the needs of the community. Results indicated that they needed better education opportunities, access to clean water and access to in-patient medical care. Pastor Hernandez is also leading the community to plant 5,000 trees. "We need to teach our children that it is our responsibility as citizens to take care of the environment," he said.
As the project is in its beginning stages, the church and community are excited about the future. "We continue to pray for support and for success of the project. We want all of it to be for God's glory," Pastor Hernandez said. "We do this not because we have time - we are farmers - but we feel we have to help. We don't have the means to help everyone, but we help in a way that is well-administered to the human life and is developed according to God's plan."
Work in the school continues today with the help of Dr. Hernandez's highly qualified staff. Watching the two staff nurses work, it is obvious that they have a love for children and a genuine concern for the students' health.
Nurses Irma and Fabiola stand in front of the classroom of fifth grade students. The cement floor is swept clean and the breeze from the open windows keeps everyone cool. The kids are tossing a green ball to each other. Taped to the ball are small pieces of paper, which are being torn off by students after they catch the ball. When the ball has no more papers, Nurse Fabiola asks who has a piece of paper with #1 on it.
A young girl shyly raises her hand, and then reads aloud the words in Spanish, "Why do we need to wash our hands?" She thinks briefly before saying, "Because when we play outside, our hands get dirty." Another student adds, "Because if we don't wash our hands, we can get sick." Fabiola praises each student for his or her correct answer.
The other slips of paper ask questions such as: When should we wash our hands? How do we wash our hands? The children are eager to answer the questions, their hands waving in the air, begging to be called on. These are review questions of what has been taught in previous sessions. What may seem like easy lessons in hygiene have been life-changing to these students.
Joel Eliseo Escun Yac is the fifth grade teacher. "Since AMI started teaching lessons here, we have had many changes in our school," he says. "They come and teach us about health and our bodies and how to take care of our bodies. Before, the students didn't wash their hands or take baths. They have taught them to brush their teeth and take baths."
Today, Irma and Fabiola are reviewing hand washing and introducing a water conservation project. They are entering the dry season, and water is becoming scarce in the rural villages. Students are paired up and given a discarded detergent bottle. They gather in the open-air hallway and light candles to burn the handles of the bottles. Then the handles are pinched shut with pliers. Nails are heated by the candles to poke holes in the bottles and then twine is threaded through the holes. A piece of soap dangles from the mouth of the bottle. When the finished project is hung and the string is pulled, water flows into the pinched handle, and water dribbles onto the soap. The students can then wash their hands with the dribbles of water, not a full bucket of water.
Irma and Fabiola encourage the students to hang their projects up at home and tell their neighbors about it. This has proven to be an effective way to spread ideas about health: teach the children and they will educate the adults.
Irma uses her experience in the classroom to make her lessons for the health promoters just as interesting. There are currently 22 health promoters in six communities. "The health promoters have an agreement with their community to teach what they learn to the community. They are able to meet the needs of their own people," explains Irma.
The women gather with Irma each week to further their education on health. Recently, she was teaching about diarrhea: its causes and how to prevent it. To begin, she reviewed their lesson from the week before, and many women easily recalled the information.
To illustrate the importance of nutrition in the prevention of diarrhea, Irma displays a wooden image of a boy. A large hole in his abdomen allows the women to see his "stomach," which is a plastic bag. As Irma tells them about junk food and an unbalanced diet, she fills the bag with a murky, green liquid. The emphasis is on the importance of drinking purified water, which over time, cleans out the stomach. The murky water leaks out and is soon replaced by clear water. It is an object lesson that is not easily forgotten.
Angelica Tay teaches women about what they need to know to be healthy and raise healthy children. "I try to teach them by putting myself in their place, looking at them from my heart and helping them in such a way," Angelica says. "The mother is an essential part of the family. They prepare the food and feed the whole family. They choose the food. We focus on the mothers because the health of the family depends on good hygiene of the mother."
Angelica's job of teaching mothers good hygiene and health has changed her view on life. "We are taking the Gospel to these people. It is not necessary to have the Bible in our hands, but what we do is a way to give the Message to the people."
It seems as though most of Dr. Hernandez's mission in San Pedro is to change attitudes. The church needs to recognize that Jesus has been an example for us to follow to serve the whole person: spirit, mind and body. The mothers need to realize that they can affect the health of their family. The health promoters need to realize they can be agents of change in their communities.
"It seems that so many want to live at the expense of health," Dr. Hernandez says. "This will only continue the poverty. They need to value themselves so they aren't dependent on others to get ahead. We want to form a new generation with a new voice and a new hope for the future."
The future of AMI San Lucas is bright. After only four years of partnership with the Luke Society, Dr. Hernandez and his staff are changing lives and communities. "We are to be instruments in the hands of God," he says. "We are instruments despite our limitations. We need to let the Lord use us for this change. We know God has plans for these people, and we want to be a part of it!"