Seven years ago while living in the western part of Mexico I helped organize a medical missions clinic in a village about an hour outside of Tepic, Nayarit. This village is one of thousands in rural Mexico full of indigenous people who lack adequate medical attention.
This particular village was populated with Huichol indians.
For weeks prior to the clinic my team and I canvassed the neighboring villages and pueblos advertising the free treatment to be provided. We were excited to be able to help give the people the medical care they desperately needed.
For the most part it was an exciting time. People were traveling up to three hours in to see a doctor – for some, their first time. We were helping them get help. It was a great feeling.
During the week, the clinic treated hundred of patients, most with basic medical needs. But on the last day of the clinic a lady arrived with an emaciated toddler who looked pathetic and tired. She was quickly escorted to one of the physicians. The toddler’s dark brown eyes stared emotionless at the physician as he examined her.
Her mother stared as well; emotionless.
After listening attentively to her heart the physician told the mother that her daughter needed surgery to repair a valve in her heart. Unless she could get her child to a surgeon in town she would not live to see her third birthday.
I tried to explain the words of the doctor to the mother.
My words caught in my throat as I glanced at my own child who played nearby – a happy 15-month old - already bigger than this slight frame before me.
The mother seemed indifferent to the news. I phrased and rephrased, searching for a response from her. My Spanish was impeccable – but my Huichol was not. I could not tell if she spoke any Spanish at all. The few words of Huichol I could speak did not help me to explain her little daughter’s condition.
“You must return to town to bring Xitlali to the surgeon in two weeks,” I urged. “She is very sick.”
I hoped that the tone of my voice would somehow translate the meaning of my empty words to her.
“Sí,” she placidly responded, looking off in the distance at the looming mountains, “Sí.”
“She is sick. Xitlali’s heart is very sick.” I tapped my chest to illustrate. “You must come back for the appointment.”
“I will help you. You be here at this street, and I will drive you and Xitlali to the doctor.”
I looked helplessly at the frail child.
Could her mother not understand the urgency?
She began to gather her few belongings and her little child to herself.
“Come back in two weeks,” I again urged, holding up two fingers. “Xitlali is very sick!”
Expressionlessly she turned and headed slowly up the trail, carrying Xitlali.
“Sí,” her voiced now barely audible. “Sí.”
I watched as the Huichol woman disappeared up the trail.
I had not tried to tell the Huichol mother the entire situation. I could not.
I think she already knew.
Here was the problem.
Her race dictated her treatment. Mexican doctors would not see Huichol Indians. Mexicans consider themselves superior to the indigenous people. The Huichol were considered second class. Medical care would not be offered to them: they were expected to get better naturally or just die.
Little Xitlali was given an “appointment,” but that was all. If she were to show up at that time, she would merely be offered another appointment, and another, and another…until she died.
I did what I could. I wasn’t a doctor and my Huichol language skills weren’t even enough to sufficiently communicate.
I watched the outline of little gasping Xitlali being carried up the trail, knowing in my heart that I would never see her again.
There was nothing I could do to change life for Xitlali. But that day I vowed to be a voice.
That day I chose to be a voice for those who were defenseless. I vowed to educate myself in medicine to help those in remote areas.
I cannot change the world. But I can do something. And I will.