How a Trip to Morales, Guatemala Shaped My Medical Journey

I had just graduated from Gonzaga University and was working in neurosurgical research in Seattle when a life-changing opportunity arose. 

Joined by a team of amazing medical providers, I was given the opportunity to help provide care for hundreds of children in Morales, Guatemala through a local Washington organization, Healing the Children.


The doctors that were involved in the organization were also involved at the middle school and church I attended as a child, so I had known about these trips for a number of years and had always admired the work that these teams did from afar. As my path toward becoming a medical provider progressed throughout college, I had one consistent goal for my life and future career: to care for those who needed the most care.

This medical mission trip allowed me to do exactly that.

My journey to Guatemala was filled with excitement and wonder. While I had spent lots of time at hospitals and with medical providers, I always felt like I was just a part of a huge system. You see, in those massive healthcare systems, I was not able to provide the kind of personal care that I had dreamed of; the type of care that fueled my passion to pursue medicine in the first place. “My involvement only contributes minimally,” I thought.  Then I stepped foot in Guatemala, and my entire outlook on medicine shifted.

We took a long bus ride from the city out to the town we would be staying. It was probably a good thing that the bus ride was long, as it gave me an opportunity to brush up on the Spanish that I hadn’t spoken is over 4 years.

As the first day in clinic came we bussed out to the hospital that we would occupy for the next week. I had no idea what to expect and, as the bus got closer to the hospital, many questions overwhelmed me.

How many people will be there?

Would my Spanish be good enough to communicate with anyone?

What do these people expect from our care?

Do I even know how to help?

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As our bus rounded the corner, my heart began to race even faster. There, just outside of our new post, stood an amazingly long line of patients and their families.

We stepped off of the bus and everything fell into place. In a matter of hours, we had transformed a baron hospital into a fully functioning audiology and pediatric clinic, two operating suites, and everything in-between.

So we got to work, seeing surgical candidates first and setting up the surgical schedule for the rest of the week. As we evaluated each child, we made the decision to either care for right then and there, or to put them on the surgery list. As the day went on, I distinctly remember being taken back by how organic and fluid our team worked.

Everyone had a vitally important job, and every single person was there with a smile. We were all truly passionate about each and every child that we saw, and not a single child fell through the cracks. As the week progressed, I recall walking through the halls of our temporary hospital and comparing the energy and overall feeling to that of the hospitals back home. Despite the dated green walls and the dim lighting, there was so much energy.

More smiling.

More gratitude.

An overwhelming feeling of true purpose.

The children in the halls played with each other and with our volunteers. They got their faces painted and kicked a ball around outside. The hallways felt like a place of happiness, health and prosperity. In reality, however, everyone in those halls needed healing and had significant barriers in their lives.

While in Morales we provided the children we met with:

  • 390 pediatric screenings and pediatric exams
  • 193 audiology exams
    • 81 hearing aids fittings
  • 10 children formerly fit with hearing aids received follow-up care
  • 60 children received ENT surgery through 99 procedures.

I could not believe how many people we had impacted in a single week in Morales. We had literally given these children the gift of finally living a life without pain. They could hear, they had the power to fight off illness, and so much more.

My Spanish was strong enough to talk to the children and hold basic conversations with the families and, in the moments when my Spanish failed me, the overwhelming kindness and pure humanity of the Guatemalan community allowed me to communicate anyways. The work we had done in Morales was truly amazing, and the lasting impact on my personal growth was more profound than I could have ever imagined.

I was hooked.

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Everything that we had done in Morales -- the care that was given; the people that were helped; my feeling of purpose -- fueled my passions and my daily interactions. I knew that, for a fact, I wanted to spend the rest of my life providing care like we did in Morales. So I put everything I had into becoming a physician.

I pursued my master’s degree in Medical Science, and I started medical school at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, Washington.

As my first year’s studies have progressed, I often wonder why I spend 15+ hours a day studying. I envision the many years ahead, struggling and fighting through rigorous classes and financial burdens. But every time I begin to have doubts – every time I wonder why I’m fighting and start to lose focus -- I think back on my trip to Morales.

My trip to Guatemala has motivated me to be someone who provides care like the providers on our trip; to know how to work with every child and how to mold into communities that are in need of help. The providers and patients on our trip have completely shaped how I see medicine and how I problem solve in school. Many of my admirable classmates in this first-year of medical school brute-force read through material and memorize the important features of our lessons. Not me.

Instead, I have found that I do better in my classes and feel more balanced by studying as if I am talking to a family.

How would I describe to a set of parents the patho-physiology of the disease their child has? How would I go about treating their child’s disease?

Overall this outlook has helped me to not only become a better student, but to think through the complexity of disease and connect with the human aspects of medicine.

This framing has forced me to not only understand the material, but to then apply my understanding to potential interactions that I could have with patients. Overall this outlook has helped me to not only become a better student, but to think through the complexity of disease and connect with the human aspects of medicine. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have served the children in Morales. I wouldn’t have had this insight or motivation if it wasn’t for them, and I am excited to spend the rest of my career continuing this type of work.

While my time in school limits my ability to go on as many trips as I would like, I find that little actions with Healing the Children can make a big difference. Spending a few moments to speak to the old team members, attending their fundraising events, giving what I can in donations, or simply reaching out and letting the organization know that I support the work that they are doing helps me remember the amazing work that is being done. Recently, I was nominated to serve on Healing the Children’s board of directors, and appreciate the ability to work with this amazing organization to create actionable work that helps thousands of children around the world.

I highly encourage people, in all communities, to help continue the good work that Healing the Children does. Whether it be donating to the organization, attending their events, volunteering on mission trips, liking their Facebook page, or simply emailing Healing the Children to let them know that our Pacific Northwest supports their work, every bit of support counts.  Healing the Children has changed my life and the lives of thousands of children, and I am truly thankful for the work that they do.


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Zachary Hanson, MA

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Zachary Hanson