Calhuitz village sits in a remote part of the mountains of Northern Guatemala, about ten hours total from Guatemala City. The locals speak a Mayan dialect called Chu’j in addition to Spanish, though not all Chu’j speakers learn Spanish. Electricity and water systems (though not potable water) have only been around the village since about 2006. Most of the residents of Calhuitz are farmers and there is not local access to many amenities like medical care and public services, which are found about a five-hour drive down the mountain to the nearest city. Many locals simply never leave the mountain.
We got settled into our accommodations; three vacant unfinished rooms in a schoolhouse that was under construction next to the women’s clinic we would be working at. A simple cinder block structure without electricity, the rooms were stocked with blankets for mattresses and simple clotheslines strung up for our use. There was an adjacent kitchen and bathroom attached to the Casa Materna, which is where we would do most of our work.
Any time I have ever worked abroad, one of the first things I am struck by is how generous and giving local people are. Many of the folks I’ve been blessed to work beside are living on two or three dollars a day, yet the moment you arrive, a gift is offered– be it coffee or fruit or simply a chair to sit in. Calhuitz was no different. We were immediately welcomed by a committee of local men and women who thanked us for being there and made sure we would have everything we needed during our stay. Standing in a circle in the gray, chilly evening air that first night with local leaders and villagers was really reaffirming and motivating– and also humbling. These people were sharing their village, their culture, their lives with six strangers, without any qualms or expectations.
We got to work the next day. Most of our focus was on helping carry out health education in conjunction with the Casa Materna, which is a women’s clinic that serves Calhuitz and a handful of neighboring villages. Though it is technically not a healthcare clinic, it’s the closest thing in the area and their work is not limited to women or maternal care– they provide basic medical attention for just about everything. It is where women go to have babies, and there were five or six women with due dates during the time we were slated to be working there. It was pretty exciting to think about being a part of delivering a baby.
The first three days, we helped with some nutrition education, infant vaccinations, pregnancy lectures, and a general census under the supervision of nurses from the Casa Materna. We travelled from village to village on foot and in the back of pickup trucks, doing home visits and setting up temporary clinics. We were graciously welcomed in every home and aldea we visited, even with muddy rain-soaked boots and a sometimes complete lack of communication skills between language barriers in English, Spanish, and Chu’j.
As the first weekend approached, the nurses and midwives at the Casa Materna decided to take the weekend and head into the city to see family and get a little break away from the clinic. They left the care of the clinic in our hands for a couple days and assured us we would do just fine. I felt a bit wary about this, as none of us were qualified healthcare providers, save for me knowing some basic shit and one of the volunteers being in nursing school. I knew there were some ticking time bombs out in the village who could go into labor at any minute, but the head nurse, Alma, seemed to think we would be alright. They headed down the mountain in the morning and promised to return in two days.
As things in the universe seem to have their own way of happening, a woman showed up to the clinic late that night in labor. She was very young, perhaps 15 or so, and her young husband was with her, along with a comadrona or birthing assistant. The only other people there to help with the labor and birth were me and my five volunteers. I had never in my life even seen a live birth, let alone try to carry one out. I remember feeling resentful in that moment that we were entrusted with something as delicate as childbirth. But we were, and it was time to step up.
I immediately called my mom on the phone, who had done part of her medical rotations in obstetrics and had experience delivering babies. It turns out that it’s actually not that hard– if you think about it, we human-animals have been giving birth literally since the beginning of time without a lot of fancy equipment and medications or hospitals. She explained the basics– time the contractions, look for the crown, and coach the mother through pushing while you help slide the little sucker out. Then snip, tie, wrap and boom you’ve got a baby. She broke down some potential hazards, appropriate precautions, and said she would be available on the phone throughout if we needed her.
We gathered up some supplies– clean towels, scissors, hot water, gloves. The birthing room had a mattress on the floor with a rope to hold on to; rather than laying down to give birth, women were accustomed to squatting back on their feet.
Everything was set up and we were all actually as excited as we were scared to be a part of bringing a baby into the world.