Living a medical mission
CHOACAMON, Guatemala — Dr. Lisa Dunham steers the white truck with muddy tires off the paved road and through a maze of tall trees and small homesteads that dot the Guatemalan landscape.
“I’m glad I learned how to drive a stick-shift before I got here,” says Dunham, who moved to Central America two years ago with her husband, Kemmel, to work as a medical missionary for Health Talents International.
She’s also become an expert at changing tires.
Her assistants, Gaspar Chan Sente and Juan Quino Bernardo, unload trunks filled with blood pressure cuffs, scales and stethoscopes from the truck. Minister Enrique Castro joins them, and the three men tie the trunks to their backs, looping the ropes around their foreheads for extra support. They walk past harvested fields of corn to reach Castro’s house, next to an adobe brick Church of Christ.
Dunham’s exam room, with family photos, crayon drawings and all the comforts of a Mayan home, is different than the kind she left behind as a family physician in Colorado.
Similarities abound, however. “We see many of the same illnesses here,” Dunham said. Despite cultural differences, “people worry about the same things here as they do in the States … interpersonal problems that go unresolved and spiritual needs that haven’t been addressed.”
That worry can lead to illness.
Women dressed in the colorful blouses and long skirts of the Mayan people wait patiently for their turn with the doctor. Until then, they sit on boards supported by Pepsi crates. Castro tells them that the clinic is a service of the church and leads a prayer, asking God to grant wisdom to Dunham and healing to her patients.
In addition to providing much-needed medical care, the clinic helps Guatemalan churches make new contacts, said Castro, a tire salesman who shepherds a 40-member church. In a part of the world where even simple illnesses can devastate lives, the rural clinic brings hope.
“It’s a great help for the people here, because I’ve seen the majority of people get better.” Castro said, after Dunham warns him about his blood sugar and hands him two packets of Equal. “It’s good for the church that people get better.”
About 45 minutes away — over winding roads and dizzying turns — members of Health Talents’ board meet in the bustling market town of Chichicastenango. Kemmel Dunham sits on the veranda of Hotel Santo Tomas, discussing his role as coordinator of community health evangelism for the Birmingham, Ala.-based ministry.
His cell phone rings frequently. In rapid Spanish he fields questions about final details for Clinica Caris, a new facility built just outside the city.
He was born in Peru, the son of a nickel miner. The family moved to El Estor, Guatemala, when Kemmel was 8 and lived there for eight years, returning to the United States in 1983 when civil war caused the Guatemalan economy to collapse.
“My concept of a missionary, from growing up in Guatemala, is that a missionary is a preacher,” Kemmel said. “And my fear of going into mission work was that I didn’t want to be a preacher — it’s not my skill.”
Kemmel Dunham was studying biology at Abilene Christian University in Texas when he signed up for the Medical Evangelism Training program. The six-week internship, sponsored by Health Talents, introduces students to medical missions. It also introduced him to his wife.
In the summer of 1990, Kemmel traveled to Guatemala and met Lisa Paschall, who was also in the program during a break from classes at the University of Texas. They married a year later.
The couple moved to Lubbock, Texas, where Lisa attended medical school while Kemmel worked in hospital administration. After her residency, Lisa got a job as a family physician in Colorado Springs, Colo. Kemmel joined a hospital consulting firm.
“Both Lisa and I were pretty successful in our careers,” Kemmel said. “Although we could make a good living … there was something missing. We’ve always had an interest in missions, but somehow … it all got lost.”
That changed when an elder of the Eastside church in Colorado Springs approached the couple about serving on its missions committee. It rekindled the couple’s interest in ministry.
Unable to have children, the Dunhams started praying about opportunities to serve as missionaries. Eastside’s elders encouraged them. Their only request — “if you go, we want to be your overseeing congregation,” Kemmel Dunham said.
At the same time, Health Talents’ leaders were looking for coordinators to expand their ministry into the mountains of central Guatemala, director Rick Harper said. Partnering with the Texas-based Caris Foundation, the ministry recently opened Clinica Caris in the village of Lemoa.
Churches of Christ in the area support the clinic, Harper said, and workers will use it as a base of operations to provide much-needed health care in several nearby communities with a lesser church presence.
“God answered a prayer when Lisa and Kemmel decided they wanted to join our team and were willing to move to Chichi,” Harper said. In addition to treating people’s medical needs, “they have done an excellent job of nurturing relationships with the local churches, so that our ministry is shared and not simply a North American work.”
In addition to the Eastside church, the Dunhams receive support from the Meadowbrook church in Jackson, Miss. Project MedSend, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, pays Lisa’s medical school loans while the couple works in the field.
After two years in Guatemala, the Dunhams still get an occasional bout of culture shock, easily treated by a trip to Guatemala City. The capital offers movie theaters, a Chili’s restaurant and a huge shopping mall. “The only difference is there are never any good sales,” Lisa Dunham said.
As they’ve helped the Guatemalan people, the couple has learned many valuable lessons from them. “People here integrate the spiritual and the physical … so that the church becomes a lot of what they do, in every aspect of their lives,” Kemmel said. Guatemalans often say “primero Dios,” (“Lord willing”) after promising to do something and “gracias a Dios” when asked how they’re doing. (“Fine, thanks to God.”)
As a result, the Dunhams pray and worship more than they ever did before, Kemmel said. They recently finished reading through the entire Bible — for the first time.
“We love being here,” he said. “It’s definitely strengthened our faith. It’s helped us to understand that we need to keep God in every aspect of our lives — not just compartmentalize him.” .
READ THE DUNHAMS’ BLOG at kemmelandlisa.blogspot.com. For more information on Health Talents International, see www.healthtalents.org