By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published May 8, 2008
The 60-year-old Guatemalan businessman reached over, held Dr. Henry Zielinski’s hand and kissed it in thanks. Domingo Gonzalez had just had surgery to repair a hernia he had been suffering with for more than two years.
Diagnosed by a Guatemalan doctor, Gonzalez had not been able to receive the surgery until a visiting Georgia team came in April because so many people ahead of him needed operations.
Following successful surgery, Gonzalez lay in a recovery room at Sanatorio Paz, a former brothel-turned-hospital in Guatemala City run by a Catholic social group called Eventos Católicos, slowly eating a piece of watermelon and smiling widely because of the staff’s quick and loving treatment.
Gonzalez was one of 39 patients that Zielinski, affectionately known as “Dr. Z,” treated during his recent mission trip to Guatemala. It marked the general surgeon’s sixth visit to the Central American country and kept up the tradition of a “surgery marathon.”
Between operations on April 8, Zielinski, a graduate of the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago, sat in the break room and shared with his team how he first came to Guatemala.
“God never works in a straight line,” he said.
Zielinski, a native of New Jersey who has lived in Georgia since 1995, recalled an assignment when he was in junior high and asked to complete a biography book report. The doctor, who is a knight of the Order of Malta and parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Dallas, told the story with a hint of nostalgia twinkling in his eye.
“I went to the library to find the shortest book that they had,” he said, laughing and confessing he hated reading in junior high. “So I found a book on a guy by the name of Tom Dooley. And Tom Dooley was a medical missionary who worked in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and northern Vietnam before the war.”
The work of Dooley fascinated him. During the next few years, he read more and the missionary claimed a special place in his thoughts. Later, as he was studying biology at Notre Dame University, he learned that, “lo and behold, Tom Dooley’s university was Notre Dame.” He found a statue dedicated to Dooley and a room of his memorabilia on campus.
A Youthful Dream Realized
While he hoped that mission work would eventually be a part of his life, it wasn’t until decades later when Zielinski ran into a pulmonologist at WellStar Kennestone Hospital that he learned of the opportunity in Guatemala.
“One day I went into the hospital, always thinking in the back of my mind when I came to Georgia that I‘m going to do this for 10, maybe 12 years, and then I’m going to go out and do missionary work,” he said. “I went into the hospital and ran into my friend … and he’s just beaming like a 120-watt light bulb.”
When Zielinski asked what he had been doing, his friend told him about a medical mission trip to Guatemala in which he had recently participated with Misión Médica Católica, a group started by Dr. Julio Torres.
Fascinated, Zielinski asked for Torres’ contact information. The first break he had that day he sat down and wrote to the doctor, expressing his interest in mission work and his desire to travel with the group.
Shortly afterward, Zielinski received a call from Torres, who invited him down to the Feria Católica (Catholic fair), a Catholic gathering of nearly 200,000 people held every year in Guatemala City.
Zielinski and his daughter, Selena Brown, an intensive care nurse, went and set up in one of the general medicine exhibition halls at the fair, treating people who came for care.
At the end of the stay, Zielinski thanked Torres and his group for allowing him to be involved but also expressed his interest in doing more.
“I’m a surgeon and if you can find me a hospital where I could operate, I think it would really help these people more,” he told Torres.
Orlando Coronado, the founder of Feria Católica and Eventos Católicos, which supports Sanatorio Paz, heard Zielinski say this through a translator.
A smile spread across his face as he responded, “Would you like to see my hospital?”
From A Fair To A Hospital
It was the beginning of a series of visits to Guatemala for the surgeon from Atlanta.
This April, Zielinski, his wife, Bobbi, and his team again found themselves on the way to Sanatorio Paz, preparing to perform surgeries on some of Guatemala’s poorest residents and stopping at the Feria Católica.
The Zielinskis hold a special place in their hearts for the fair, since it was the backdrop for their first experience in Guatemala. And since they have grown closer to the founder during their mission trips in recent years, it has become a staple of their visits.
Founded by Coronado more than 20 years ago, the fair draws 200,000 people from 20 countries according to the Eventos Católicos Web site. In 2009, the fair will celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Coronado did not always have such big plans in mind. He candidly talks about his life prior to conversion, a life as a professional singer, full of women and alcohol. But he felt God calling him to something greater and left the rock star lifestyle behind to begin Eventos Católicos.
“I was a drinker, and I loved women,” said Coronado through a translator. “Then Jesus found me … and he started changing my life. It wasn’t easy because I did not know anything about Jesus.”
The fair is a lively manifestation of the Catholic Church of Latin America. Eucharistic adoration, music and medical aid are at the center of the gathering each year.
In several exhibition halls, one can find free or inexpensive medicines, cheap medical care and information on various ministries of the church, as well as plenty of freshly cooked food and a wealth of crafts, jewelry and clothes.
The medical care offered is wide ranging, from dental and optical to gastroenterology and neurology. Visitors can pick up prescription eyeglasses, have an ultrasound or get a mammogram.
In the center of the fairgrounds, which serves as an industrial park for the remainder of the year, a chapel is set up with eucharistic adoration. A very elaborate altar, with hundreds of candles, angel statues and greenery surround the monstrance as many people pray on their knees or with their hands stretched out.
A large group also forms near the main stage, where music is performed almost constantly. Musicians, such as crowd favorite Guillermo Valencia from Colombia, have made the Feria Católica a must on their touring schedule.
More than 13 million people live in Guatemala. Most belong to the Catholic Church, amidst a growing Protestant population and those who hold onto traditional Mayan beliefs. Churches are plentiful, and one can be found at the center square of each city. Many churches date back hundreds of years, but the modern ways of the West are found in shopping malls and city markets.
The Central American country, bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, is slightly smaller than Tennessee. Historically it began as a Mayan civilization, then became a Spanish colony and won independence in 1821. The country endured a 36-year civil and guerrilla war that ended in 1996. More peaceful years have come since then.
With an average of one physician for every 1,100 persons, about a third of the physician-patient average in the United States, there are many unmet health needs in the country. The health of the underserved in Guatemala is very important to Zielinski and his team.
‘Thank God We Are Not All Surgeons’
His goal on these brief mission trips is to help “some people who have hernias get back to a more normal life.”
He said he focuses on hernias for several reasons. One is that hernias keep people “from being fully engaged in life.” Also, a hernia repair operation is difficult to obtain through the local health system in Guatemala since many patients have to purchase their own surgical mesh, an expensive and necessary component to the surgery.
He and his supporters also have a long-term dream of bringing a village of health care to rural Guatemala. He feels compelled by his faith to do what he can for the poor.
“Each of us has our particular gifts to offer, and thank God we are not all surgeons,” he said. “We are truly the body of Christ. … Together the gifts which God has given to each and every one of his members can, and indeed must, work together to do that which we can, where ever we can, to lovingly reach out and care for Him, particularly as He is manifest in the weakest and most vulnerable among us.”
“As Mother Teresa noted, we have the privilege of seeing, meeting, treating, loving Jesus in the person of the poor,” he continued. “The world has, for the most part, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to these people. After all, they are no one special. And yet Jesus, in sorting out the sheep from the goats, based his decision on the response that was shown to the plight of such as these.”
This April his team hopped into a van provided by Eventos Católicos, and they watched the action on Guatemala City streets during the brief ride to the hospital.
The team’s van pulled to a stop in front of the hospital, with barred windows and surrounded by barbed wire, where two guards with guns patrolled the door.
Smiles were exchanged between the guards and the team as a polite, “Buenos dias,” (“Good morning”) or “Mucho gusto, médicos” (“Pleased to meet you, doctors”) was said.
The team walked down the hall, greeting those in the hospital, and then put on their scrubs, and spiritually and mentally prepared for the day. With their hands clasped and heads bowed, Zielinski and his group paused for a prayer in the break room before each day of surgery, helping to bring the focus back to the people of Guatemala.
Zielinski was determined to help as many people as he could in his short visit and averaged more than 10 operations per day for four consecutive days.
Despite an aching back and sore feet due to long periods of standing, he continued to remind his team that they were there to serve the people of Guatemala.
And the people who received medical attention from Zielinski’s team and the employees of Sanatorio Paz were truly grateful.
The Last Patient Took A Bus To The Hospital
One patient was listening to the Eventos Católicos radio station when she heard that a surgeon was in town to perform hernia repair operations.
“I traveled 15 kilometers to get here,” the woman said through a translator, briefly sharing how she took a bus down from the mountains surrounding Guatemala City. The patient, who came to the city immediately after hearing the news, made it just in time and was the final patient Zielinski and his team treated during their trip.
“One patient that I recall in particular was an elderly appearing 62-year-old man with a large, chronic hernia that he had been living with for about 20 years,” Zielinski said after returning home from the trip.
“Looking up at me from the hospital bed, he tried to communicate just how much this operation had meant to him, that I had chosen to help him in overcoming this 20-year-old problem. … With the little English that this man knew, and with tears running down his face, he let me know that ‘you will always be father for me … like my father … understand? Like my father you are to me.’”
Over four days, the team operated on patients ranging in age from 7 months old to over 70.
But it was not only the Guatemalan patients who benefited from the mission trip. The team recognized the unique opportunity they had to participate in such an event.
“The trip provided me with a wonderful opportunity for service and personal growth,” said Jacqui Pilch, an employee of WellStar Kennestone Hospital, Marietta, who will begin medical school in August. The trip was her first mission experience.
“As a Christian, I believe that it is my greatest responsibility and joy to serve others. As one about to enter the medical profession, I can think of few better ways to use my talents for the glory of God than through a medical mission,” she said.
The staff at the hospital also showed their gratitude to the medical missionaries with a daily lunch, and fresh fruit, cookies and water available each day in the OR break room.
“It was hard, but the hospital had done such a great job of getting organized for us that it was much smoother than previous years,” said Beth Summerlin after the trip.
Summerlin, a neurosurgery surgical services resource nurse at WellStar Kennestone, has completed three previous mission trips to Guatemala with the Zielinskis.
Also joining Zielinski on the April trip were his wife and translator Paula Gonzalez.
Zielinski’s team worked hand-in-hand with the staff at Sanatorio Paz, including three nurses, Maria Antonieta Rosales, Reyna Marina Coc and Yolonda Judith Sosa, and the resident anesthesiologist, Dr. José Antonio Santos.
The mission of Sanatorio Paz, according to manager Sonia
DePerez, is “for Guatemalans to have treatments at a low rate.”
“The mission is to help all the republic of Guatemala and open others in other parts of Guatemala,” she said through a translator.
The group brought five large duffle bags of supplies from the U.S. to aid them and the hospital in the strenuous work they knew they were going to face. From sutures and syringes to surgical masks and gloves, Zielinski and his team were well prepared from day one.
The faces on the patients as they were rolled back into the operating rooms were as widely ranged as their ages. The younger patients appeared nervous or scared as it was most likely their first operation, maybe even their first time in a hospital, while others could be seen smiling because they knew they were receiving care that did not come as often as it was needed.
As Zielinski and those assisting in surgery listened to local Guatemalan radio stations, told stories and laughed, Gonzalez comforted the patients with words, song or a simple holding of the hand.
“I think that overall the trip was a huge success with us having completed 45 operations on 39 patients in four days,” Summerlin said.
Imagining A Rural Medical Village
The experiences Zielinski has had in Guatemala over the last few years have helped him discern where God is calling him. He feels the work that needs to be done in the country warrants more than a week or two of service per year.
Last year, the Pray It Forward Foundation, a nonprofit medical organization originally envisioned by Bobbi Zielinski and started by Dr. Zielinski and Selena Brown, officially registered with the Guatemalan government under the name “Amadios,” meaning “love God.”
The organization is currently chasing down the dream of a medical village in rural Guatemala, and they are gaining on it.
Zielinski has teamed up with Herbert Chavez, a close friend he made during his mission trips to Guatemala, to realize a larger dream of helping the poor of the country.
“Our long-term goal is to establish a self-sustaining medical village in a rural area underserved by the national medical system,” said Zielinski. “This vision includes a Catholic chapel for perpetual adoration, a convent, medical clinic, outpatient surgical suites, an orphanage and a small school.”
During this most recent visit, Zielinski and Chavez shared with the team about a new umbrella organization named Madre that will bring Amadios together with several other entities working toward the same goal.
Chavez took Zielinski and his team to visit Censi, one of the organizations teaming up with Amadios to form the medical village, which works with handicapped children in the area. The people involved with Censi took Zielinski and his team on a tour of the facility and explained how they treated the children.
Following the tour, the entire group, including representatives from four of the five organizations, went to visit a piece of land that was donated to the group for the specific purpose of building the medical village. There the group talked about the future of the project and how to proceed to the next step.
“I am pleased with the direction that the new project is going and hope that we are closer to realizing the dream of a hospital/clinic where we can help to provide for the rural poor who don’t have access to the excellent facilities of Eventos Católicos in Guatemala City,” said Summerlin, who joins the Zielinskis on the board of directors for Amadios.
Following his return to the U.S., Zielinski left for Colorado Springs, Colo., where he will begin the next phase of his journey. After more than 20 years in private practice, Zielinski has chosen to work as a civilian contractor with the U.S. Army at Evans Army Community Hospital in Fort Carson. He plans to continue making medical mission trips.
“The love and blessings which I receive from these trips are a very tangible sign of God’s love for me (and, I think, a foretaste of heaven),” he said by e-mail. “The kingdom of heaven is truly among us. Having experienced that, who could stay away from such blessings?”