Annual trips to Guatemala put life into perspective for local nurse

Nancy Olson lends her expertise to help the local people  

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Nancy Olson has been going to Guatemala every year since 1992. It’s not a trip to lay in the sun, swim and shop. It’s a trip with other medical personnel to help the Guatemalan people with various medical issues.

Olson is a registered nurse and works at St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Little Falls. She received her diploma from St. Mary’s in Rochester.

“My best friend in nursing school went to Guatemala and worked in an orphanage. She asked me to join her, saying once I went, I would be addicted,” Olson said. “But I couldn’t go until 1993 when Dr. Jim Weeks, who worked at St. Gabriel’s,  was going. I knew it was time.”

Olson said the trips put her life in perspective.

While in Guatemala, Nancy Olson helped twins with needed glasses. Pictured are Maria Sandoval, Olson and Pamela Leon.
While in Guatemala, Nancy Olson helped twins with needed glasses. Pictured are Maria Sandoval, Olson and Pamela Leon.

“All the day to day things that upset us are very minor when seeing people trying to survive with no money, no food, no healthcare,” she said. “Compared to us, they have nothing.”

Her upcoming trip to Huehuetenango, Guatemala, begins March 14. She will travel with about 100 others, most from Central Minnesota, some from other states.

When there, the group stays in the hospital or in the army barracks. They sleep on cots, bringing all their own bedding, towels, etc. They have access to cooking facilities and the showers are communal.

Not all the group are medical personnel. Some travel with their spouses and help by cooking for the group, cleaning surgical instruments or move patients from area to area.

“There is plenty to do for anyone who wants to be part of the program,” said Olson.  “The five – six cooks prepare three meals a day and keep us healthy by ensuring the fruits and vegetables are free of the bacteria that can make us ill.”

During a routine checkup in Guatemala, registered nurse Nancy Olson from Little Falls held Juan Morales.
During a routine checkup in Guatemala, registered nurse Nancy Olson from Little Falls held Juan Morales.

Interpreters are also needed. Besides those who travel with the group, students from the local American School come to help as part of their curriculum.

The trips are organized by Helps International whose mission is to provide enduring programs of practical, social and spiritual value to the people in the developing world through a system of partnership and mutual responsibility.

The group will work in a Huehuetenango hospital/clinic for one week. Olson is in charge of the clinic. There will be four – six doctors and nurses for each. They see from 60 – 100 patients each day, both from the town and from the surrounding rural areas.

A dental team will accompany the group and their primary job will be extractions and filling cavities.

There is also a surgical team that does skin grafts, cleft palates, hysterectomies and many hernia repairs.

“Without transportation, and many of the people don’t have animals to help, the people have to carry heavy loads, creating hernias,” said Olson.

An eye team will be traveling with the group to do necessary cataract surgeries along with pharmacists.

“We bring along the necessary medications for the Guatemalans,” she said. “We have learned from past performances what we will need. It’s mostly pain medications, antibiotics and saline for eyes.”

Olson said the people of Guatemala have fewer allergies to the medications because of less exposure to them. Their eyes are affected by the smoke from cooking on open fires in the home without vents.

“Another job we perform while there is installing O’Neil stoves with chimneys in their homes to help prevent eye irritation,” said Olson.

Over the years, Olson has established relationships with many of the people she travels with and with those who live in Guatemala.

“When the medical teams get together, it’s like a family reunion. We work together for a week in intense situations. We both laugh and cry together,” she said.

Olson said there are triumphs and losses the team has to contend with. She remembered a teen who had been brought in on a stretcher. He had been playing soccer and had become weak in the legs.

“Without X-rays or other medical equipment, the doctors determined he might have Gillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system,” said Olson. Paralysis starts in the feet and hands and migrates towards the person’s trunk.

“The doctors told the family the young man needed to go the Guatemala City’s hospital to live. But the family took him home because they didn’t trust the Guatemalan doctors. Besides, they did not have transportation or money,” said Olson. “The boy died and it tore us apart.”

The team felt they could have got the boy to the city, but the family still said, “No.’’

On a happier note, a baby girl came into the hospital, less than a year old, but didn’t weigh more than six pounds.

“The mother had several children and the father was not in the picture,” said Olson. “The family had no money, no food and no milk for the baby. The baby was lethargic; she was starving.”

The team got formula and clothing and in one week, she was acting just like a baby should with lots of smiles. The group then got formula for a year, clothing  and money for food for the entire family.

For more information about Helps International, go to