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Newly Resurrected Guatemalan Hospital a Victim of Deadly Storms

The facility had closed in 1990 after a slaying by troops left villagers too afraid to use it. U.S. aid and volunteers enabled it to reopen this year.

October 13, 2005|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

PANABAJ, Guatemala — The little hospital was supposed to heal the wounds suffered in Guatemala's 35-year civil war.

El Hospitalito Atitlan had closed in 1990 during the war, and for 15 years the one-story hospital founded by an Oklahoma diocese had stood empty.

Private U.S.-based organizations mustered enough donations and volunteers to reopen the 14-bed facility in April. Its operating room, the only one within an hour's drive or boat ride from here, performed its first surgery in August, an emergency appendectomy.

Then came last week's storms associated with Hurricane Stan, which brought mudslides that killed as many as 500 village residents and filled the renovated hospital with mud and debris.

Guatemalan authorities said Wednesday that 654 people had been confirmed dead nationwide, with an additional 577 missing.

Volunteer nurse practitioner Barbara Fallon had arrived two days before the disaster. "We'd been working, stocking supplies, cleaning the floors. It was perfect," said Fallon, 52, of Williamsburg, Va. "We saw some patients, got everything organized."

The hospital delivered babies, extracted bad teeth, prescribed eyeglasses and provided 24-hour emergency care. Three physicians from the United States and one from Guatemala were on staff and welcomed the volunteer help.

On the day of the slide, Fallon said, "we just grabbed our stuff and ran."

She and two friends, another nurse and a nutritionist, hurried to a clinic in Santiago Atitlan, a neighboring town where the injured were being taken. "There was a baby being born, a dead man and people just completely covered in mud," she said.

They joined a makeshift unit of about a dozen medical workers who treated cuts suffered by dozens of villagers. One 10-year-old boy who survived the rush of mud by hanging on to a pipe was badly cut and had a dislocated hip.

The youth lost his entire family but by afternoon was singing to cheer up the other patients, Fallon said.

She said the group treated about 30 or 40 people the day of the slide, "and then it was over."

Workers recovered about 70 bodies in Panabaj before the hardening mud and fears about the risk of disease forced them to stop.

Government officials are deciding whether to declare large sections of the village a mass grave and condemn the remaining structures. That could include the hospital, said Kenneth Wood, board president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Pueblo a Pueblo, one of the groups sponsoring the facility in conjunction with local organizers.

The hospital had closed because residents were too afraid to go there after the 1990 killing of 13 unarmed villagers by soldiers stationed nearby. Protests eventually led the government to close the garrison in a rare victory for the impoverished Mayas living here and in nearby towns at the edge of Lake Atitlan.

Renovation began four years ago, Wood said, with a combination of local labor and U.S. donations. The facility had been stripped and needed carpentry, plumbing, paint and new medical equipment.

Given its history, he said, "it was more than rebuilding a medical facility, it was also a spiritual resurrection."

Now, the staff and volunteers hope they can at least retrieve the dental chair, ultrasound machine, surgical equipment and other gear that were brought in to give new life to the hospital.

"Nobody wants to go through this all over again," Wood said. "But if we have to start over again, we'll start over again."

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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