On the three-hour bus trip from the airport to Tiquisate I read a book by Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.
At one point I peeked over the shoulder to see what book the surgery resident sitting in front of me was reading. My reward for being curious was a glance into General Surgery Review and the following words jumping off the page: Abdominal Distention and Bloody Stools.
"Well, that was enough reality for that moment," I thought. "I think I'll just get back to seeing what Mr. Stevens was saying about poetry."
The first two times I came to Guatemala with Children of the Americas, I translated in the general clinic for nurse practitioners and doctors and had to re-examine how hardcore nurses are. Those ladies snapped on rubber gloves, give me a nod, and dutifully dug into the gnarliest, saddest, most gut-wrenching cases of disease and physical deterioration. I, on the other hand, faced the extreme moments fighting tears pooling in my eyes. Ultimately, I always exerted enough control to avoid insulting anyone or embarrassing myself.
This year I was assigned to work with the dentists, a group that traveled down from the University of Kentucky to extract teeth. Extract is such a vague word, however, really they were RIPPING teeth out. There were no gas masks and blissful unconscious states in this low-budget clinic; there were needles, novocaine, and pliers. And if I were a child - or let's be honest, who I am today - you would have had to club me over the head and dragged me into that room of piercing screams to get into my mouth.
The REASON for the dental visit, however, is that children in Guatemala evidently spend more time sucking on sugar cane and drinking soda than brushing so they end up with mouths full of rotting black stubs. It hurts, infection spreads, it's bad news. Enter the syringes and the shiny pliers. Six tables were set up in a auditorium separate from the hospital to try to prevent the screams from infecting the mood of the general populace. The kids came in by turn, passing the army guards with their fatigues and rifles at the door.
The kids listened to me explain that we'd stick a needle in their gums and inject them with something that tasted bad, that it would pinch, and that their mouth would go to sleep. I told them that they'd have to be very brave. Then a couple of giant strangers wrestled with the roots of their teeth while other giant strangers held them down. Traumatic, but with a good reason and positive result.