Category Archives: Inspiration

“Thankful for…” (The Guatemala Version)

Thanksgiving Day is almost here for our readers in the United States and those who celebrate this holiday around the world. As we think of many blessings for which to give thanks, quite a few come to mind from Guatemala!



“Lake Atitlan.”

“Vibrant colors.”


“The smell of warm corn tortillas.”

“The people.”

With Guatemala in mind, what’s on your “thankful for” list?

The Vital Words Communications Team is also thankful for all of you who have partnered with us as we seek to help healthcare professionals, translators and many others to serve Guatemalans well. ¡Mil gracias!

Un Regalito Perfecto

Do you know anyone heading off on a medical mission trip to Guatemala this summer? How about someone who just graduated with a degree in Spanish? Or maybe someone who is going to be studying Spanish or medicine this coming school year?

Then, of course, there is Father’s Day…

Whatever the celebration, don’t forget that Understanding the Guatemalan Patient could be un regalito perfecto – a perfect little gift!

Order your copy today on Amazon or contact us for bulk pricing.

Glimpses of Guatemala: Tikal

You start your day early and arrive at Tikal while morning’s cool touch still covers the jungle. As you follow your guide down the dirt trails, birds greet you with their chirps and whistles. You pass the great ceiba tree, the national tree of Guatemala. If you look down, perhaps you’ll see butterflies gathered around a puddle or ants intent on a destination.

Once you reach the Grand Plaza with the two temples facing each other, you take a break as you also take in the history and scenery around you.

Then you’re off to reach Temple IV further on in the jungle. Not fully excavated, Temple IV can be climbed by wooden ladder-steps. Somehow these look safer than the steep, uneven stone steps you saw at the Grand Plaza.

Up you go, step by step. When you finally reach the very top, you sit down and look. You are above the canopy of the jungle, so nothing impedes your view. What was that deep roar? A howler monkey? You read that they can be heard 5 miles away…

As you sit there, you welcome a sense of wonder. Wonder over the beauty before your eyes. Wonder over the diversity of the animals and plants you’ve seen. Wonder over the intelligence and skill of a people who built and understood so much centuries ago. As you make your way down the wooden steps and drive to a hotel for dinner, you certainly have plenty to think about.

I have been to Tikal 22 times and there was always something to wonder over. This part of Guatemala reflects the rest of the country in that it is a place of wonder. You could say it’s wonder-full.

It started at the dinner table…

Dinner table post pic

By Kristen A. Hammer

It started at the dinner table in our home in Guatemala – the same dinner table that Dad (Dr. Steven Hammer) and some friends had made years earlier out of two sheets of plywood. At that dinner table, Dad began pulling bits of paper out of his shirt pocket. Those bits of paper held his notes about words or folk medicine practices he had learned from his patients that day. As he read his jottings to us, some made us curious and ask questions, some made us groan, and some made us laugh.

You see, while Guatemala’s national language is, of course, Spanish, twenty-some Mayan languages are still spoken there as well. During the nine years Dad spent in Guatemala, he served many patients who spoke Spanish as a second language and, thus, used some words differently or mixed with their Mayan tongue. Combine that fact with an average education level of second grade and you have a recipe for some pretty interesting health ideas! Throw in Guatemalans’ love for slang, and your conversations are bound to be as flavorful as a Christmas tamale.

I personally found those mealtime conversations intriguing. After all, I was the girl who had considered becoming a brain surgeon and a writer. Dad’s stories from the clinic melded my interest in science and my love for words and people together. Those mealtime conversations were the start of Understanding the Guatemalan Patient: A Glossary of Spanish Medical Terms and Folk Medicine. More importantly to me, they and other conversations with the many visitors who ate with us are among my favorite Guatemala memories.

In the 21st century, many families find it hard to gather around the dinner table together. However, the benefits – like healthier eating habits and lower incidence of drug and alcohol use in youth – make it worth the fight. The healthier eating habits associated with family meals may especially benefit Hispanic youth and other minorities who face a higher risk of diabetes.[1] So, whether you are getting into your school-year routines in the US or heading toward school vacations like our friends in Guatemala, why not make the effort to gather around your table often with family and friends? Since September 15 started National Hispanic Heritage Month, you may even want to include some Hispanic food in your bill of fare. Whether it’s quesadillas, tacos, platanos fritos, chiles rellenos or mole poblano, enjoy the time together. Who knows? Someday you might even be saying, “It started at the dinner table…”


[1] American Diabetes Association, “Overall Numbers, Diabetes and Prediabetes”  (accessed 21 September 2015).

There are many articles online about the value of shared meals. Here are a few that I read in preparing this post that you may find useful as well:

Amber J. Hammons, PhD, Barbara H. Flese PhD Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?” 

Sarah Klein, “8 Reasons to Make Time for Family Dinner”,,20339151,00.html 

Jeanie Lerche Davis, “Family Dinners Are Important: 10 reasons why, and 10 shortcuts to help get the family to the table.” 

“What’s a Masako?”: A Moment in the Life of a Missionary Doctor

"What's a Masako?"

Part of being a missionary doctor is that lots of people want to get to know you. Maybe they’ve heard good things about you. Maybe they just want to check you out before they need your skills. Maybe they know you’re going to need friends. Whatever the reason, you’ll probably get invited to a host of social events.

Of course, when you’re still adjusting to the country where you’re serving, there’s a lot to learn: new words, new customs, new foods, new locations, new faces and new names. Mix all of that together with a social event, and you might get a story like this…

A young missionary doctor in Guatemala was filling up his plate at a party when his wife came up behind him. We don’t know exactly what she said, but, we do know that the doctor replied without looking around. “What’s a mah-sah-koh?”

Then he turned…and realized what a “mah-sah-koh” was or, rather, who is was: the  Japanese animal-rescue worker! Thankfully, she was more than gracious and even became a friend.

But, ah, yes, the embarrassment of being the new guy on the block! Do you have a story of a misunderstood new word? What about tips for graciously mending cross-cultural miscommunications?

Here at Understanding the Guatemalan Patient we can’t really help you with Japanese names, but we do hope to save you potential embarrassment when it comes to Spanish/Mayan communication. Check out some of our archived “Word(s) of the Week” posts to get a flavor of the terms found in the book!

The Weight of Words

Weight of WordsHave you ever heard, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Who came up with that saying? Whoever it was, they must have never heard hurtful words.

The truth is words can hurt just as much as stones. Words have weight, too. Sure, we might not stay as sensitive to others’ remarks as we were in, say, junior high, but that doesn’t mean we can’t feel pain caused by words. A promise broken, a lie told, a trust betrayed – each involves words and can dent or even shatter our lives.

On the flip side, words can anchor us to good things, catapult us into greatness and change lives. Words like home, traditions, family, love (casa, tradiciones, familia, amor give context to our lives and – while we may feel that they weigh us down at times – they could also help keep our feet on the ground where we need to be. Many agree that these words play a big role in Latin American culture even in the 21st-century. Encouraging words can tip the scales and help us overcome our doubts. Who hasn’t been strengthened by a “Go for it!” or a “Great job!”? As one man put it, “Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” [1] Truly, the right word at the right time can change someone’s life.

So what is a well-said, well-timed word’s weight worth? An ancient proverb says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” [2] Gold and silver? Now that’s some valuable weight!

At Understanding the Guatemalan Patient, we want to help you know just the right words so that you can use them at just the right time. One pocket-sized book may weigh only 2.5 ounces, but with 600+ entries in the Spanish-English section alone, its worth far more than it’s weight in words. (And it won’t tip the luggage scale or overload your purse!)

[1] Napoleon Hill, (accessed 10 August 2015).

[2] Attributed to King Solomon, Proverbs 25:11, ESV.

Licuados: A Sip of Guatemala

During a day spent in and out of the tropical sun and blanketed in high humidity, what could be more refreshing than a chilly smoothie (or licuado, as we say in Guatemala)? There’s just something about ice, milk and/or yogurt, a dash of sweetener and lush tropical fruit blended together. The varieties are as plentiful as the tropical fruits available at the mercado. Banana, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon and even avocado can each create a scrumptious blend with the other ingredients.

Beyond the yumminess, there’s another reason to enjoy smoothies: staying hydrated! We often read or hear how important hydration is for the brain. Dehydration should be a noteworthy concern, especially in third-world countries like Guatemala. Whether or not you live in the tropics and whether you are a healthcare provider, interpreter, student, parent or some other vital role, you need your brain to be in tip-top shape to keep learning and serving. But let’s face it, water can taste, well, rather plain after a while. Instead of heading for a soda can or another latte, why not blend up a brain-boosting smoothie?

Feeling thirsty yet? If so, you’re in luck! Today we’re sharing a recipe for a longtime favorite. This simple Licuado de Banano brings back memories of crates of bananas at the local market, after-clinic refreshments and Guatemala school snack times. We hope you enjoy it and that you build your own set of sweet, healthful memories along the way.

Licuado de Banano Recipe

(This recipe makes an individual serving. However, it’s easy to double and share with a friend!)


6 ice cubes

1/2 banana, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup milk (In Guatemala, we used powdered milk, but you can use regular milk or almond milk.)

dash of vanilla

sweetener to taste (Everyone has different preferences about this, so go with how you like it! If your banana is nicely ripe, you may decide the smoothie is perfect without added sugars.)

Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into your favorite glass and plop in a straw if you’d like. Enjoy!

Do you have a favorite smoothie recipe? Feel free to share it with us. Here at Understanding the Guatemalan Patient, we’re always on the lookout for good ideas! And if you would like to find out what makes an avocado smoothie awesome, drop us a line, and we’ll post it in the upcoming weeks.