It all started about a decade ago during a service at Precious Blood of Christ in Pawleys Island.
A deacon putting together a mission trip to Guatemala told the congregation that organizers needed volunteers to go on the weeklong trip – especially doctors who also speak Spanish.
“I kind of felt that everybody’s finger was pointed at me,” said Dr. Victor Diaz-Gonzalez, a physician with Tidelands Health Cardiology.
The Georgetown cardiologist and Puerto Rican native packed up and went. It set off what has become a regular trip almost yearly for Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez – a chance for him to give by providing free basic medical care to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it. But what he gets – well, that’s priceless.
“They give you so many blessings,” said Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez, who recently returned from San Pedro La Laguna in Guatemala on a mission trip with the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.
Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez is one of a number of physicians and medical providers at Tidelands Health who regularly answer the call to go on mission trips to provide medical care in communities in central America, Africa and other places that need it.
“There’s a sense of giving back to the less fortunate,” he said. “You make some connections. You get a lot out of giving to the less fortunate, but you also come back very humbled.”
Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez recently returned with a humble heart from his eighth mission trip to Guatemala, where he ventured to remote villages treating basic medical issues such as aches, pains and acid reflux and checking blood pressure and other vital signs.
He’d also frequently treat coughs and respiratory infections brought on by residents’ method of cooking on fire-fueled woodstoves. These woodstoves typically aren’t properly ventilated, causing those around to inhale toxic smoke.
Aches, pains and other ailments might sound simple to treat in the United States, but many in Guatemala and other areas don’t have access to a medical provider or basic medications such as Aleve or Tylenol.
“They are so grateful for such a simple thing,” Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez said.
The days are long for the doctor – starting at 7 a.m. with a prayer breakfast and wrapping up at 7 p.m. with evening prayers and dinner. In between, Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez provides medical care for roughly 25 people a day; his mission group will see roughly 700 people during the weeklong trip.
Ryan Dunne, clinical team leader in the pharmacy at Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital, joined one of those mission groups on a trip to Guatemala in 2013.
“Just seeing a completely different lifestyle – it was kind of culture shock when we first got off the plane,” Dunne said. “Here, you have a lot more to work with, but over there you have very limited resources. You have to make the most of what you have — makes you think outside the box.”
But the hugs from those receiving needed medical care make it all worth it.
“Everybody was just so grateful to everybody providing the help,” Dunne said.
Through the years, Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez has developed friends in St. Pedro – he even “sponsors” kids there through Project St. Pedro by providing year-round to help fund their education and other needs. He’s sponsored Mayra, 13, and Jesus, 9, for roughly seven years and always enjoys getting to spend time with them during his mission trips.
New experiences, new rewards
But every trip also brings about new connections. One patient during his most recent trip was so happy to see Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez – not just to get medical care but also because that day was her 89th birthday. She wasn’t used to getting visitors other than her relatives.
“She was so excited that someone had come to see her on her birthday,” he said. “It was very touching.”
That gratitude for the simple things many of us don’t even think twice about in the United States inspires Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez to be thankful every day for all the blessings in his life.
“They are so happy – they live their faith,” Dr. Diaz-Gonzalez said. “That makes me think I should do better over here.”
Dunne is looking for his next chance to go on a mission trip through Grand Strand Church in Socastee, where he attends services.
“If you have the chance to go on a mission trip, do it,” Dunne said. “You can really learn a lot. It’s an appreciation for what we have here.”