Day 21


Hello all, sorry no updates recently. We have been without power. Here is a report I submitted to Heart to Heart of the events from the last days. Thanks for all your prayers!

To Heart to Heart, and whom it may concern:

This is a recap of the events from the last few days. Saturday morning, Dan Cool and I received word a tropical storm was headed for Central America, and Guatemala was expected to take a direct hit. We gathered together supplies and prepared for the worst. It had been raining for the past few days, and as the time passed it only picked up. Somewhere around 7 or 8 in the evening on Saturday seemed to be the worst. We had lost power and water by then, so Dan and I were simply waiting in the house. At one point, I stepped out the front door and shined my flashlight to the right of our house to see a river of mud rushing by. Our neighbors to the left of us (Guillermo Garcia Garcia) evacuated shortly after to be with the rest of their family.

By about 9, the rain appeared to stop.  I noticed Guillermo had returned and was retrieving things from his house. I asked if he needed help and he said his parent’s house had been flooded with mud. Dan and I spent the next hour and a half shoveling mud out of our neighbor’s house. We returned to bed that night with spirits high, until the rain started again.

We awoke the next morning to blue skies. I walked outside our house to discover two mudslides on either side of our house. The larger one to the south of our house had narrowly missed our Guillermo’s house by only a few meters. As I walked to the north side, a family had begun to shovel the mud out of their house and we worked with them for about an hour. After, the family fed us breakfast and we headed out to assess the rest of the town. Guillermo’s father’s house had mud in another part, so Dan and I set out to helping the family again. Most of the day was spent shoveling, and assessing the damage to the community. We discovered the main road to Panajachel had extensive damage from mudslides. Luckily, no families had homes completely destroyed and no one was injured.

A friend of the Garcia family arrived on Sunday afternoon. Her name is Jackie Garrido, and she has spent the last four days helping us communicate with the community leaders. Jackie has been working with the Garcia family for the past four months forming a women’s collation working with fabric. As we talked with the Garcia brothers (Guillermo, Louis, and Rolando) we questioned them about the water problem. It appeared that Rolando was part of the Community Water Committee and said we needed to go assess the damage to the pipes tomorrow. Unfortunately, the problem laid in getting money to purchase the broken materials. They would ask the municipality of Panajachel to purchase them, but the officials take so long that it is ineffective and could take days to weeks. The next step is to ask families for donations for the materials, but they are already financially stressed as is. We made the proposal that Heart to Heart could offer to pay for part of the supplies, and it was decided that we would leave early the next morning to assess the damage.

During the afternoon, we discovered the Garica family had a band called Los Hermanos Garcia. They offered to coming sing for us so we made plans for them to come to our house in the evening. As Dan and I were preparing dinner, the band arrived. Five brothers, each with an instrument, crowded into our dining room. By the light of our candles, the Garcia brothers sang praises in harmony for us. It was an incredible scene to see these men in our house, after a day of such calamity and disaster. I don’t know if I have ever experienced such a wide variety of emotions within 24 hours. Much had occurred within the past day to crush the spirits of this community, but here was a family, offering praises through their music. It was a scene that gave me great hope for the days ahead. Dan and I offered the food we had to the Garcia family. It was barely enough for everyone and we had to share cups and plates, but we made it work.

Monday morning we set out at 7:00 AM. Patanatic receives its water from two springs in the mountains. The primary spring lies about 3 miles away across two mountains. The hike to the primary spring was incredibly treacherous and dangerous. The trail had been knocked out in a number of places by mudslides. We observed a number of breaks and headed for the second spring. The second spring had damage to it as well, but with the assessment we had made throughout the day, we were able to develop a list of materials needed to fix the problem. I had been communicating with Jorge Coromac every few hours since the storm hit, and he told me we needed a price before we could offer them anything. So we raced to Panajachel to get an estimate for the materials (the roads had been cleared on Monday by machines provided by the government). The total for the parts was 6,400 quetzales. I communicated this with Jorge, and he responded with the generous donation of Q5,000.

As we arrived back into Patanatic, Rolondo Garcia Garcia asked us to present the materials to the Agua Commuté (Community Water Committee). Dan, Jackie and I presented the materials to a very thankful and gracious leadership. They explained that in the morning, 20 volunteers would be ready to begin installation. Work was to begin at 7:00 AM.

When we arrived to work on Tuesday morning, over 60 men were gathered to work. The group, led by Rolondo Garcia Garcia, split into two groups to tackle the two separate springs. I was amazed by the response of the community. Word had spread that materials were available and help was needed, and community responded. The men spent the entire day, till six in the evening, repairing breaks in the pipe beginning at the very beginning of the springs. At the end of the day, most of the repairs had been made, and Rolondo explained that hopefully tomorrow, they would finish with the repairs.

That night, Dan, Jackie, and I had the opportunity to have coffee with Guillermo and his wife. Jackie helped translate and Guillermo again expressed his thanks on behalf of the community. He told us that their hearts were full with gratitude for the response of Heart to Heart. They had made it possible for this community to respond quickly to the disaster. The whole community is aware of what Heart to Heart has done, and all are extremely thankful for making this happen.

And now, with much adu, and I happy to announce that this afternoon (Wednesday), Patanatic received its’ first gallons of fresh water since Saturday. Patanatic is the first community to successfully respond to the water dilemma since Tropical Storm Agatha struck on Saturday, and this is due in large part to the donation by Heart to Heart. The community of Patanatic thanks you, and I thank you. This donation will not be soon forgotten by the community. Again, tonight, as we shared coffee with Rosa, another member of the Garcia family, she explained that Heart to Heart is the first organization to reside full-time in this community, and this is very meaningful to them. She expressed hope for more collaboration in the coming weeks, months, years for healthier families, and a healthier community.

If there is anything more I can add it is this: Heart to Heart is making a profound impact on this community. With your help, you have responded quickly to disaster, prevented potential health problems, and continued to build the incredible reputation of a caring organization. There is much work left to be done here in Patanatic and in the surrounding communities, and hopefully Heart to Heart can respond with swift compassion.


Erik Unruh

Day twenty-one, and I’m still breathing.

Day 16


Two weeks of Spanish school. Done. I’m feeling as though my skills have improved a little, either that or people are talking more simply to me. As least I can manage my way around town and am able to coordinate plans with Cesar.

As I was waiting for the bus to leave this morning, the sick father that I have been visiting arrived at the bus stop on his way to work. He said he was feeling much better and his son was better as well. It was a relief to see him out of the house and headed to work.

At the end of class, Dan and I had a Skype conference with the team that is coming in June. It was great to see you all, and we are extremely excited for your arrival!

It has been raining steady for the past three days, so that slowing things down a bit. Dan and I have spent the last two afternoons in the house trying to study Spanish, and plan out what needs to be done in the next week. Here is what we have come up with:

Since health assessments are not working, I am moving to plan B. I proposed to Jorge that I travel around the lake to all the clinics and hospitals to develop an idea of what organizations we might be able to partner with in the future. This will help us develop a demographic of the services offered, and where we can possibly refer patients. Dan is determined to coordinate with the construction leaders on the clinic and offer suggestions where needed. His parents are arriving on Monday, so we will also have some guests next week.

The eruption of the volcano Pacaya has been the topic of many discussions around town. We haven’t felt any of the effects, I think primarily because of the storm system that is hovering over us right now. The rain has us a little nervous and Dan and I are developing a plan in case we lose power or water supply.

On anther note, Dan and I have decided to make the trip to Tikal. After much collaboration with Pedro, he seems to have found us the best deal that will include us picking up Dan’s parents from Guatemala City on Monday. The plan is to leave Saturday afternoon at 4:00, drive through the night and arrive at Tikal at 7:00 AM Sunday morning. We’ll leave Tikal Sunday night at 9:00 and arrive back in Guatemala City by 9:00 AM Monday morning, and wait in the city until Dan’s parents arrive at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Dan and I took our ritual trip into Panajachel for Friday night dinner and music at the Circus Bar. The rain didn’t seem to deter too many people away and the food was delicious as ever. Pedro arrived late into the evening, and it seemed he had a fair amount to drink already. He had one more offer to make us in regards to the trip: his friend would take us on a private bus the entire way, but it was more than triple what we were already paying. We respectfully declined, and he didn’t seem too offended. We had a few more drinks in honor of our friendship (well, Pedro said tonight we were not friends, we were brothers!) and headed out. Pedro handed Dan the keys to his Moped, and the three of us squeezed on and rode to Pedro’s house in the pouring rain. He wanted us to take the Moped back to Patantic, so we set out for our home.

The headlights on Pedro’s bike don’t exactly work well, so luckily I had my trusty flashlight sent by the one and only Zach Phillips. And this is no ordinary flashlight, not only will it reach from Patanatic to Panajachel, it also will double as a weapon in case of emergency. Using it as our guide, we weaved our way up the mountain. About 500 feet from Patanatic, the bike ran out of gas. This night was just not going to end. I helped Dan push the bike up to the office, and decided it would be a safe place to store it for the night.

Only a 150 ft climb to our house, and we could call it a day. The rain kept coming, and thankfully, my trash bag kept my core dry. The rest of me was not so lucky.

Day sixteen, and I’m still breathing.

Day 14


The clouds rolled away this morning and revealed the majestic volcano, San Pedro, on the other side of the lake. The view was the clearest I have seen it since I have arrived, and it was a nice view as I sipped my café.

School seemed to go very well, and quick, this morning. I went to Mike’s coffee shop on my break for a cinnamon roll. As I was snacking, a man came in and asked Mike if he was closing today. Mike said absolutely not. I thought it was a strange question, until the man explained that the prices for electricity were doubling, and all the shop owners in Panajachel were going to protest. Mike again denied, and said he would remain open. I didn’t think much of it again until it was time for me to leave Panajachel.

As we approached the edge of town in the taxi, I could see a line of cars. And they weren’t moving. We stopped at a blockade of trees and boulders that had been strewn across the road. The driver said this is as far as we go and everyone hopped out. At this time the rain began to fall. Many people were huddled under a guard shack, so I quickly made my way over to escape the rain. I got my trash bag out and put it over myself as one man explained the protest to me.

I had a choice, make my way through the debris in the road and walk back to Patanatic, or go back to Panajachel and hope that the roads would eventually open up. I opted for the first choice.

I set out for Patanatic with my pants rolled up and my trash bag covering my essentials. The rain was falling at a pretty good rate, and Patanatic was about 3 miles away. By about halfway there, I was completely drenched. But I didn’t really care. I was enjoying the adventure and singing at the top of my lungs as I walked down the middle of the road. The entire way, trees had been chopped down, and boulders rolled out into the road to prevent traffic from entering or leaving the city. Hopefully, things get settled soon.

By the time I arrived home, it was mid-afternoon and I was soaked to the bone. I didn’t think health assessments were going to take place today, so I got out of my wet clothes and took the afternoon to work on my Spanish.

Later in the afternoon, I visited the sick family. The boy said he felt better, but his lungs told a different story. They sounded very congested and wet, and I fear he has an infection. So I told his mother she needs to take him to the doctor. His mother has a serious ear infection, and his father was sick in the bedroom unable to come out. It’s a very difficult situation to see. The whole family cramped in a little house, all sick sharing each other’s germs. If anything, it is a scene that is motivation for me. For them, it’s a death trap; a slippery slope of sickness, and unable to work, and not having money to see a doctor or pay for medicine. And so the cycle goes…

Dan and I had no dinner plans ready for tonight, so we were contemplating going into town to see what we could find. I called Pedro to see if the road had opened up yet, and he said no. I wanted a second opinion, so I called Jose. He reaffirmed Pedro’s information and warned us not to go unless we absolutely had to. It wasn’t a necessity, so we decided to stay in for the evening and Jose wound up coming over to eat with us.

It was a very good time talking with Jose. He was sorry to hear about Dan’s accident. While we were talking, Cesar and his mother showed up with a melon for us. I think it was mainly for Dan, but I was still glad to see them. Now it is beginning to feel like a real house. Friends stopping by to visit, to check up on us, and even join us for a bite to eat. I could get used to this.

Jose stayed for most of the evening and shared many stories about life in Guatemala. It is hard to believe the type of lives people live here, and how little they can get by on. Jose was telling me that a typical job in Panajachel would earn, in one month, what I am going to earn in one day when I start that the hospital. And I have to wonder if that is right. I mean I wonder, how could it be that we live in such different worlds? What I can earn in 12 hours, one person will labor for a month or longer to earn. Now I don’t think I consider any one person to be at fault for this disparity. And certainly I don’t want to impose guilt on anyone. But this just doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t have the answer to what is to be done, or how to close the gap between the great divide. But I hope I never forget that scene: at least five people sleeping in the same room, three of them sick in a damp, dark house.

Day fourteen, and I’m still breathing.

Day 13


“Erik, I think I am going to need some help.”

“Okay,” I said as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I heard Dan outside my room rustling around. I opened the door to find him at the sink of the bathroom looking in the mirror and holding tissues to his face. Dan likes to get up early and ride his bike before many people get on the road. Unfortunately, this morning Dan took a bit of a spill.

I went over to Dan and took a look at his face. He had a huge gash on his upper lip right under his nose.

“It looks like you are going to need some stitches.” The gash in his lip was quite deep. It looked like the flesh of his lip had been peeled back by the road. Luckily, his teeth were okay and the cut had not gone through his lip. He had scratches all over his face and on his hands and wrists. Dan had been smart and had been wearing his helmet. Safety first!

Guillermo, our neighbor, had helped Dan up our drive and was still there in the doorway. I told him we needed stitches, and he said we could possibly get them in Panajachel, at the Center for Health. Guillermo called the emergency services for us to take us there. They arrived 15 minutes later, and the volunteer paramedic was, go figure, an American.

They took us down to Panajachel where we hoped to get Dan stitched up. The paramedic had only lived in Guatemala for the past eight months, but had been a paramedic for over twenty years in the states. He was the only one in unit that spoke English. What are the chances?

We arrived at the Center for Health, where Dan was able to get stitched up by a Guatemalan doctor who was educated in Cuba. At the end, we asked if we could pay, but it was all free. No payment necessary.

Needless to say Spanish classes for the day were shot. I sent Dan back home in a taxi, and I ran a few errands in town. When I finally made it back to the house in Patantic, I realized I had lost my cell phone. We needed some other supplies for the house, so I headed back into town. I thought I might have lost my phone in the ambulance so I headed for the station. On my way there, I ran into Pedro, and told him all about Dan’s accident. Pedro quickly offered to help and we hopped on his Moped. For the next couple hours, Pedro and I raced around town on his bike picking up necessities. The phone turned up at the fire station, and all was resolved. Pedro came up to Patanatic to check on Dan, and was sincerely sorry for him.

It is an odd way to start your day, to wake up to your roommate clutching his face asking for help. We are lucky it wasn’t any more worse, it very easily could have been. Dan still has all his teeth, and there seems to be no brain damage, yet. No just joking, he is all there.

Health assessments were waiting for me at 2 so I headed to the office. I still doubt the effectiveness of my assessments. They seem to be very futile. I have no medicine to offer, and I have very little education to offer. The communication barrier seems insurmountable. Jorge and I had a long talk this evening and decided that something needs to change. We have decided to cancel the health assessments with the families. There are problems on many levels. Language primarily. On the other had, we have asked the entire family to come; mother, father, and children. But there winds up being only one member from each family. The past two days have been very frustrating.

I am not frustrated in my knowledge as a nurse. I feel competent for the most part. What I am disappointed in is my inability to communicate. There is no doubt that I desire to serve and to help, but I don’t have the adequate capacity to just yet. We tried out something, and it didn’t work. So we need to make adjustments. I am holding on to the fact, as my father reminded me, nothing is wasted. Even though this aspect of our work is not functioning, it hasn’t been wasted. I am learning with each person.

After I left the office, I headed over to the house where I visited the sick boy yesterday. He seemed to improve a little although he sounded more congested today. Unfortunately, his whole family seems to be sick and the house is quite crowed. There is a saying here: Mayo de mal. Everyone gets sick in May. I am planning on returning again tomorrow, hopefully to find the family in a little bit better condition. If no improvement by Thursday, we will need to seek further action.

I returned home quite discouraged. It was a hard day. I began cooking dinner for Dan and I and had the chance to speak with Jorge for quite a while. We planned out the next few days and will try to adjust. If one thing doesn’t work, you try another. Jorge was very sorry to hear about Dan’s accident.

Cesar heard about the accident and came over to our house to see how he was doing. It was right as Dan and I were sitting down to eat, so we invited him to join us. I was excited to share the Guatemaloteca salsa I had made. Cesar approved of my skills and seemingly enjoyed the dinner. I was pleased with myself as I was able to understand most of what Cesar was saying, although I am sure he speaks very simply for us.

I will do assessments again tomorrow as the word has already gone out to the families. After that, we will have to figure out something different. Just another day in Guatemala, what in the world could tomorrow hold?

Day thirteen, and I’m still breathing.

Day 12


Spanish school. Spanish school. Spanish school. Is it bad that I loathe it? Maybe that is a strong word, but beginning to strongly dislike it. I don’t know why, I really want to learn Spanish. Maybe it is because I’m not learning as fast as I hoped to. At any rate, this is my last week so I better take advantage of my time.

Okay now the real reason I am here: health assessments. Open up the doors, let the floodgates down, I’m ready to start taking patients. So I wait, and wait a little more, and just a little bit longer, until the first man arrived. They trickled in over the next hour and a half. I was able to explain that I didn’t have any medicine available, and I was only doing basic health assessments. The challenge came in trying to decipher the questions of the people. Once that occurred, I was faced with the challenge of offering a response in Spanish, of some remedy.

It was a very frustrating day. Some complaints people had could be relieved by simple education, but I can barely do that. Half of the responsibility of a nurse lies in education. So I guess you could say I am struggling a little. I want to help, I want to offer more, but there is this barrier between us that I am struggling to tear down.

I left the office wondering if I really did anything today, and sort of grumbling to myself. I arrived home and Dan had a similar experience today after meeting with the construction managers of the clinic. He too is frustrated with the language barrier, so we commiserated for a while, until some visitors showed up.

Three little kids, peering in our window.

We invited them in and gave them some juice and salsa and guacamole (they go great together). We couldn’t get much out of them, because the girls were giggling so much. I’m sure it was weird for them to be sitting in our house. One of them asked where I slept so I showed them, then Dan’s room, then the rest of the house. They were soaking up all of our possessions, examining every inch of the house. We entertained them the best we could until another visitor arrived.

This one was another boy, only a teenager. It turns out he was looking for me. I was able to gather that he had a sick uncle and was hoping that I could come see him. Por supuesto. I grabbed my stethoscope and otoscope and we were off. The boy led me down the mountain through trees and rocky paths.

The parents greeted me with thanks and handshakes and led me back into the bedroom. The “uncle” turned out to be another boy about 11 years old. He had a fever and cough for the last day and felt miserable. I did a quick assessment and asked questions to the parents as best as I could. The boy was already taking something for his fever, so I am hoping he will be improving by tomorrow. I again tried to offer the parents some education regarding drinking tea, gargling warm salt water, rest, and drinking plenty of water and juice. I told them I would come back tomorrow to see how he was doing.

I guess the word is out. There is a nurse living in Patanatic. It was odd to say the least. Being called on by someone, then hiking to the boy’s house. Again, I wish I had more to offer these people. But my experience is so little, I am just learning as I go. I’m putting myself in an incredibly vulnerable position. I am a licensed nurse, technically. So I should be a professional resource, technically. But in reality? More or less…

All this to say, I don’t know exactly what I am offering these people, if anything. I pray it is something useful or helpful, or at least not damaging to anyone. Some very challenging times today, and there are certainly more to come. But, this is okay. I am learning many things. And I have to believe this is helping, or doing some good. I think it is.

Day twelve, and I’m still breathing.

Day 11


Another pleasant morning with the chance to sleep in a little. No plans really, just to prepare for tomorrow and help Dan out with a few projects.

In the afternoon, Dan wanted to map out the entire town on GPS. So we set out with GPS in hand and walked through the town. We started up, as high as we could go. The road lead us to the top of the mountain, with a view of the surrounding valleys, the lake in the distance, and the tops of two volcanoes peaking through the clouds. The beauty here is incredible.

Next, we hiked down to the bottom of the road and discovered where the trash of the town goes. It is amazing the contrast and tension you can have in one place: great beauty in the land and the people, yet great poverty and lack of basic public structures.

I am feeling much more ready for tomorrow. Whatever is going to happen will happen, and I will give it my best shot. Yes, absolutely, I feel incredibly inadequate for this task. But sitting around telling myself is not going to help.

Somehow, Dan and I wound up going over to Cesar’s house in the evening. Cesar wasn’t home, but his family still invited us in for café y pan (coffee and bread). We spent the evening practicing our Spanish and I got to share some pictures of my family and friends on my iPod. Cesar’s father was especially intrigued by the picture I had of my father’s wheat field. He was even more amazed by the combine. At this point in the evening, I discovered Cesar’s father worked as a truck driver for many years, but has not been working due to his back.  Immediately, I thought of sciatica, a common problem for truck drivers, but there was nothing I could do. Trying to give the best advice I could, I told him to apply a warm towel to his back three times a day for therapeutic relief. If it is sciatica, it probably won’t help much, but it was the best advice I could think of.

I think Cesar’s family enjoys hearing us trying to use our Spanish. They are patient with us and offer encouragement. Little by little our conversation is expanding and the bonds are becoming stronger.

Day eleven, and I’m still breathing.