By Melanie Schuman Rattigan
I'm a TV producer - a profession which affords me many travel opportunities as well as the chance to meet people from every walk of life. It's a job of logistics and sound editorial judgment. I've covered the Amish school shootings, fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon between the national army and Al-Qaeda militants, the Pope's recent visit to New York City and a host of other stories.
Holding hands with a woman as I explain the recovery procedure after surgeons remove a 12-pound tumor from her uterus is not an event I could have planned. Staples up and down her belly are not an easy sight, especially as she grimaces in pain. Yet whatever compassion I can share as I relay the doctor's orders to a small group of nurses (two to be exact) covering the women's ward at a state-run hospital in Zacapa, Guatemala is as important as anything I do on a day-to-day basis.
Two years of high school book Spanish nearly 20 years ago shockingly goes a long way in such circumstances with a bit of practice. What goes farther? An open mind.
Over the course of the past seven years, I have traveled to Guatemala five times with a group called Hearts in Motion. Since 1990, the group has worked with resources already in the country to build a support system for those needing education, medical care and a helping hand - all the while, remembering how important it is to respect its culture, its way of doing things.
On these trips I'm away from the chaotic world of New York City and faced with the challenge of doing something completely outside my skill set. I see children suffering a variety of maladies that those who grow up in the United States usually only see in movies or on the news. Many are the result of poor nutrition or a lack of pre-natal care. Others, for both children and adults, are accidental - burns from cooking cornmeal in their one-room home, accident victims missing limbs and even men missing fingers who work day-in and day-out in the campo (fields).
Many people in this third-world country look at the "gringos" - a slang term for Americans - as wealthy. By comparison we may be, but not in terms of money. Many of us are lucky enough to have clean clothes, something to eat and a place to go to school. A parent, spouse or sibling who tells us they love us. In so many places I have visited in Guatemala, I have seen the joy in a child's face or the face of a sun-tanned abuela (grandmother caring for her 10 grandchildren) when I simply hug them. A hug, that's it. The group I travel with - Hearts in Motion - may give them vitamins, a blanket or a life-saving surgical procedure. Yet a simple sign of compassion mean just as much.
It can be shocking to see the degree of poverty - kids walking around the mountains and mudslide-devastated villages without shoes, firemen and emergency response teams with no more than a bottle of Tylenol in the back of an empty ambulance.
Truthfully, I'm well aware that many in our country do not have healthcare and that poverty exists around the very corner on which I live in New York City. I often wonder if my 10 days spent each year in Guatemala would be better served here in the U.S. I've even been asked that by my own family members.
Perhaps it's selfish - I know I can put down the blackberry, stop running errands and devote myself emotionally and physically for 10 days uninterrupted to help these people get through another day. I don't think anyone would say they love cold showers, unusual bugs, brushing your teeth with bottled water and other septic-related issues I don't need to discuss.
Somehow I feel I cheat. I fly home and return to the creature comforts life here affords and I wonder: who benefited more? The Guatemalans or me?
Melanie Schuman Rattigan is a coordinating producer for the FOX News Channel. Hearts in Motion is a non-profit 501 (c) 3, non-denominational organization that focuses on the needs of impoverished children and families. It's predominant focus is in Central and Latin America, but it also has several programs in operation in the United States. You can find out more information at www.heartsinmotion.org.