Bob Aarvig has seen firsthand the results of poverty, malnutrition and a lack of good dental hygiene. The 78-year-old retired oral surgeon from Seminole has traveled on several medical missions to Guatemala, where the people, Quiche Indians, habitually chew sugarcane to stave off hunger — and the result is usually severe tooth decay and painful infections from abscessed teeth.
On a given mission, Aarvig will examine their teeth, perhaps with a flashlight. He'll mark on their hands the number of teeth to be pulled, numb them and then perform extractions.
He may work while sitting on a church pew, performing the procedure with the patient's head in his lap.
"We work in the most primitive conditions," he said.
Aarvig is part of Global Hands of Healing, a nonprofit organization that sends medical mission teams to treat Guatemala's poor.
The group usually takes about 10 to 15 doctors and support personnel on biannual trips to the Central American country.
They stay a week and usually treat several hundred people.
Team members pay an average of $700 to go on one of these missions. Global Hands of Healing pays the rest.
Many in this group are members of the Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, but this isn't just a church mission. The doctors and others realized that they would receive broader support from the community if they established a nonprofit organization, so they did. The group's first trip was in 2003.
"We're faith-based, but totally nondenominational," said David Rogers, 55, of Largo.
It's a labor of love that can mean hotels without hot water showers or air-conditioning, less-than-comfortable road trips, drinking only bottled water and eating simple meals.
"We eat peanut butter sandwiches and ride in old chicken buses," Rogers said.
Team members said the colorful, rickety old school buses take them on long journeys to rural areas on roads that can be dusty, potholed and treacherous.
They arrive to find people suffering from a variety of conditions, including malnutrition, diabetes, high blood pressure, parasites — even leprosy.
Rogers, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter who now sells real estate, gives eye exams on the medical missions.
He uses a focometer, a portable, handheld instrument designed for use in remote areas to measure nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism.
He doles out reading glasses bought from dollar stores and makes prescription glasses on the spot. With good vision, the Quiche can become more productive weavers and farmers.
"It can be a life-changing event for them," he said.
Rogers recalled the time a patient returned to donate his cane. After being fitted with glasses, the man said he no longer needed it because he could now see the bumps in the road.
Susan Murbach, 47, of Largo is a registered nurse who has gone on two trips and collected several hundred pairs of sneakers for the Quiche.
"They have so many problems that are so preventable," she said.
Most are hardworking individuals living in makeshift huts with dirt floors and no electricity, toilets or running water, she said.
They bathe in rivers and drink untreated water. They shop in street markets, where meat hangs without refrigeration.
"We just do what we can do to help them and hope for the best," Murbach said.
Jim Rau, 44, of Largo is credited with starting the local effort after he and his wife, Brenda, adopted two girls from Guatemala: Anna Marie, 9, and Katie, 5.
When Rau, a doctor at Bardmoor Emergency Center in Largo, learned about the desperate need for health care, he found a way to help.
"Their needs are so great," he said. "This is a way to give back."
Money is raised through auctions and contributions from church and community members. Supplies are sometimes donated or purchased at or near cost.
It can be an incredibly rewarding experience, team members say.
Once the team diagnosed a woman, about 35 years old, with leprosy.
She had no money for medical care, so the group paid for an ambulance to take her to a distant hospital that would treat her.
She put her worldly belongings in a paper bag and left for what would be a 10-month treatment for the disease.
She returned to her village, disease-free.
Scott Magness, 48, assistant chief of suppression and paramedic with Clearwater Fire and Rescue, teaches the bombaros (local firefighters) how to deal with emergencies.
There is a big need for childbirth kits, so he and team members give them bags filled with towels, blankets, beanie caps and bulb syringes.
The mission team takes suitcases full of pharmaceuticals, often providing the ill with a three-month supply of medicines. The hope is that someday other health care professionals from the United States or Canada will arrive and treat them.
The medical missionaries say it's the charming smiles and appreciative hugs that warm their hearts and lead them to return again and again.
"When those kids look up at you with those big brown eyes," Magness said, "well, that's what keeps us going back."
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