Tag Archives: Guatemalan healthcare

On a Medical Mission Team: Understanding Mayan Spanish Speakers


You’ve dreamed of this day. You’ve studied and saved for this day. Now here it is: your first day seeing patients with a medical mission team in Guatemala.

The still-cool morning breezes waft through the metal screens over the windows of the concrete building. You smile at your first patient, a man from the campo who looks like he has labored long throughout his life, and begin a conversation. Since you’ve studied Spanish for several years now, your team decided you don’t need one of the in-demand interpreters as much as other team members, so you’re on your own for this conversation. Shouldn’t be hard, right?

Then your patient says, “Me duele mi canilla.” 

Your optimistic thoughts screech to a halt. Canilla? You’ve never heard that word! So much for those years of studying. The way he set his worn hand on his leg makes you think there’s some connection, but you want to know…and you don’t want your ignorance to make him feel uncomfortable.

You calmly look around. No interpreters nearby.

Then you remember that little blue book your dad gave you when he dropped you off at the airport. “Might come in handy,” he said.

You pull it out of the bag on the table next to you. It’s a glossary. Where are the “c” words? Oh, yay, there it is! 

canilla – leg, lower leg

You look your patient in the eye with a smile and say, “¿Se duele su canilla?” You set your hand on your leg like he had. “¿Cómo su pierna?

¡Sí!” He nods his head vigorously. “Me duele mi canilla.”

Oh, good! Now you can continue with your consultation.

Later you get a chance to ask one of the translators about canilla. He laughs. “Canilla is like an animal’s leg,” he says. “People, especially those who grew up speaking a Mayan language and speak Spanish as a second language, use it for a person’s leg, too.”

Ah, now you understand even better. And maybe tonight you’ll look through more of those words from that Understanding the Guatemalan Patient. It seems like it really might come in handy.

Gearing up for a medical mission trip to Guatemala or know someone who is? Maybe you’ll want your own copy of Understanding the Guatemalan Patient. Check it out on Amazon today!

When a “vulture” entered your conversation…

Summer – at long last! You’ve been so ready to be done with your thick textbooks and exams, and you finally are…at least for a few glorious months. Right now you’re daydreaming about your upcoming trip to Guatemala. You can’t wait to go back. In fact, you’re going through medical school so that you can serve Latin Americans with your hard-won skills.

You start doodling out a packing list. After all, you learned some things on your trip last year. Might as well benefit from them!

Hey, where is that book, the little blue one that your Spanish-interpreter aunt gave you before your last trip? You scour your shelves – or rather the piles on your shelves. (Your organizational skills haven’t recovered from the “finals flurry” yet.) Ah-hah! There it is. Understanding the Guatemalan Patient: A Glossary of Spanish Medical Terms and Folk MedicineSettling in your overstuffed chair, you flip through the pages. Wow, does it bring back memories! Like that time with the “vulture”…

It was the second day of your first medical mission trip to Guatemala. You were seeing patients under the supervision of an MD with a Spanish interpreter nearby. Your little patient looked to be about five and was having a hard time of it. The interpreter was talking through the symptoms with the mother when a funny word caught your ears. The mom, who was clearly of Mayan descent, was saying something about “zope“.

Since your aunt is a Spanish interpreter Spanish is woven into your life pretty well. But “zope”? Doesn’t that mean “vulture”?

That’s when you remembered that your aunt gave you that book that’s supposed to deal with slang expressions. You pluck it out of your pocket and flip to the “z” words. Yep, there it is: zope.

“So he’s been vomiting?” you ask.

The translator nods. “Yes, how did you know?”

“Well, I speak a little Spanish, but -” You hand her the book. “- my aunt gave me this.”

She skims a couple of pages. “We should have these here.”

“Maybe I can get some to you,” you say with a smile.

Yeah, that was a fun memory. Your Spanish is a lot better this year, but you’re definitely taking this book along again. In fact, maybe you’ll get a couple of extras. Why not check it out on Amazon? Your other team members should have them as a recuerdo if nothing else.

Sometimes it’s the little things…

Some days in your clinic are just plain peanut-butter-and-jelly days – nothing particularly brain stretching, no cases that you could find in Hunter’s Tropical Medicine, no life-saving measures.

The fact that some of your patients are Hispanic, many of Guatemalan or Mexican ancestry, and speak little English adds some salsa to your tortilla chips though. Like the case that just hobbled through your door…

You can’t get more routine than an ingrown toenail, can you? Thankfully, a medical interpreter is handy to help you communicate with this patient and his wife. However, when the interpreter says “uña encarnada“, your patients blink without recognition.

You have your own copy of the Stedman Bilingüe Diccionario de Ciencias Médicas at home – good healthcare providers are life-long learners, right? – so you know that’s the standard medical terminology. But you decide to go out on a limb.

Uñero,” You say.

The wife’s face brightens. “¡Hay, sí! Esta es la palabra que usamos.”

That starts a fast-paced side conversation between them and the interpreter while you set to work, relieving the poor man of his simple but noticeably painful malady.

I’d better give the interpreter a card for Understanding the Guatemalan Patient before she leaves, you decide. After all, sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. 

When a patient has lost his soul…

This is your third medical mission trip to Guatemala, and you’d felt like you’d pretty much see it all. But this latest case has you floored.

You’ve just been told that the patient in front of you has pérdida del alma. Since you’ve read about it in Understanding the Guatemalan Patientyou have a grasp on its basic meaning – “soul loss” – and you know that your patient is exhibiting one of the common symptoms: muteness.

How do you handle a case wrapped in traditions and folk medicine practices like this? One thing you know: you’re glad you’re here to serve.

Want your own copy of Understanding the Guatemalan Patient: A Glossary of Spanish Medical Terms and Folk Medicine so you can be informed of not only slang expressions but also folk illnesses? Check it out on Amazon! And don’t forget our “8 for $48” bulk special ends on Thursday, April 30, 2015!

Another way to say “pterygium”

You’re in the middle of another day at the downtown clinic. You work here often as an interpreter serving the large Hispanic community. Some of the patients have even gotten to know you a bit. You’ve built up trust because you’ve worked hard to really speak their language and show them you care.

You’re pretty sure you could diagnose the patient yourself. The presence of surfer’s eye – pterygium – is pretty obvious. You haven’t spent all this time with medical people without picking up a thing or two! But you wait until the doctor gives the clear diagnosis. Then you pull up the Spanish medical dictionary in your brain and explain to the patient that he has pterigión. 

When the patient gives you a blank stare, you decide to try a more on-the-street explanation in case it helps. You know the patient is of Guatemalan heritage, so you pull out one of your speaking-like-a-local-phrases and say, “Tal vez lo llaman carnosidad del ojo.

The patient grins, “Ah, sí. Ya entiendo.”

You smile and go on to explain the treatment and answer questions.

That night, you pull Understanding the Guatemalan Patient off your handy shelf and put a check mark by “pterygium carnosidad del ojo”.

You like to keep track of the terms you’ve used from this little book. So far, you’ve used quite a few. It makes you happy to know that you were able to continue serving and building trust today because you knew just the words to use. Maybe you’ll look through this pocket-size book tonight to give yourself a refresher.

Purchase your copy of Understanding the Guatemalan Patient  today on Amazon!


It’s been a long day. You’re a nurse on a mission trip in Guatemala, and the heat must be getting to you a bit. But it looks like this is your last patient for the day. The fact that she doesn’t speak English doesn’t bother you. After all, you’ve taken several Spanish classes. During your week here in Guatemala, you’ve been doing pretty well so far.

When you ask what’s wrong, she says, “Me duele el pesquezo.

Pesquezo? That’s a new one! Casually, you glance around. Where is that translator when you need him? No where to be found apparently.

You decide to try to figure it out. You ask her to show you where it hurts. She put her hand on her neck and shows you how it hurts when she moves her head.

Ah-hah! Now you’re getting somewhere. You proceed with the visit and wrap up another rewarding day seeing patients at a special rural clinic.

That night you tell one of your team members about pesquezo. She, also a nurse, says, “Oh, that means ‘neck’, right?”

“Yeah,” you say, “I think so. But how do you know?”

She pulls a little blue book out of her backpack. “I bought this before we came. That word’s in here. It’s says pesquezo is formally used to mean an animal’s neck. I guess that’s why we didn’t learn it in school.”

“Hey, why didn’t I know about this?” you wonder, thumbing through the spiral-bound, pocket-sized book.

“Well, you can look at it tonight if you want,” your friend says. “It’s been really helpful to me.”

“Thanks. That would be great. Then maybe I’ll get my own copy before our next trip.”

Heading out on a medical mission trip to Guatemala or southern Mexico? Make sure everyone on your team is prepared with a copy of Understanding the Guatemalan Patient ! Check out the special bulk package on Amazon of 8 copies for on $48. (Offer available through April 30, 2015.) Happy reading and happy travels! 



A toad’s eye?

Today’s post is a great example of the eccentricities of language that make it so fun and fascinating! Have you ever heard the Spanish phrase “ojo de sapo”? Did you know what it means? Of course, literally, it means “eye of toad” or “toad’s eye”, but it also has another meaning…

ojo de sapomoonshine (as in homemade alcoholic beverages)


What’s the origin? Well, to be honest, we don’t now, but we’d love to find out, so drop us a comment if you know!



“Me duele la tapita,” your patient says, gingerly touching her knee, to the interpreter next to you.

“Her kneecap hurts,” the interpreter informs you.

You proceed with the office visit, but your brain is wondering, Didn’t I just learn that ‘tapita’ means bottle cap? (You’ve been trying to learn a little Spanish yourself.)

Before the interpreter leaves, you get to ask her.

“Yes, according to your regular Spanish-English medical dictionary rótula is actually the word for kneecap, but I have this.” She pulls a blue, pocket-sized book from her purse.

You look at the title. ‘Understanding the Guatemalan Patient: A Glossary of Spanish Medical Terms and Folk Medicine. Pretty long name for such a small book.”

She laughs. “I know, right? Well, there are more than 600 terms just in the Spanish-English section, a lot of them slang. Since many of the people we serve here are Guatemalans who don’t speak real dictionary Spanish. It’s helped me out more than once. See? Right here in the English-Spanish section.”

Kneecap – tapita.”

“That’s right. I love it when I know just the right word to make our patients feel understood.”


One glance at the baby tells you the diagnosis. “Tiene ictericia,” you tell the Guatemalan mother. Bewilderment covers her face. You carefully explain the causes and treatments for jaundice. All of a sudden, the mother smiles and says, “Pues, es como amarillo, verdad?” Amarillo? Yellow? That could make sense. That’s when you remember the pocket-sized book you stuffed in your bag a while ago. You find it and look through the English-Spanish section. There it is:

jaundice amarillo 

Now it’s your turn to smile. “Sí, es como amarillo,” you confirm. As you answer a couple of the mother’s questions, you make a mental note to look through that Understanding the Guatemalan Patient tonight.  

to become infected

Today one of your patients is from a rural area of Guatemala. Thanks to your prior interactions with her, you know that she uses more slang expressions than otherwise. You need to explain  how to care for her injury so that it doesn’t become infected. Instead of the traditional phraseology, you decide to try out a new word you learned from that pocket-sized, blue book you keep in your desk drawer. After the word, “inconarse” leaves your lips, a smile brightens your patient’s face. You’ve connected.

infected, to become

inconarse, madurar