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Thursday, February 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington Voices

Oral surgeons, staff, bring smiles to Guatemalan children

Randy’s cries echoed through the pediatric center of the Guatemalan hospital.

The government-funded hospital is mostly outdoors, featuring cracked tiles and an abundance of dust. Randy’s mother carried him up the ramp toward the operating rooms.

The 10-month-old boy from Zacapa, Guatemala, has a cleft lip and palate. He screams and flails as his mother passes him off to a nurse who will ready him for surgery. Minutes later, Randy is lying on a hospital bed inside the operating room with his eyes shut. The sharp and monotonous sound of the heart rate monitor is drowned out by Irish music playing from a portable iHome.

Poised above Randy is oral surgeon Mark Paxton, of Spokane Valley, who will be performing Randy’s surgery. Paxton is a volunteer surgeon who has been doing cleft lip and palate surgeries in Guatemala with Hearts in Motion, a nonprofit based out of Indiana, for the past 20 years.

“I enjoy doing cleft lip and palate surgery because it’s one of the most rewarding types of surgery that I do,” Paxton said. “Fixing cleft lip and palate allows individuals to drink and eat normally, talk normally and look normal. It can make a huge change in someone’s life.”

Outside the operating room, Randy’s mother cries into the embrace of another Guatemalan parent who has a child going through surgery. The mother and other Hearts in Motion volunteers try to console the woman, telling her it will all be worth it in the end.

Hearts in Motion, which has several million dollars running through the organization, has social programs in the United States, Guatemala, Ecuador and Honduras. The nonprofit, which started in 1982, originally had a volunteer base of 12 who went on two volunteering trips a year, said Karen Scheeringa-Parra, the founder of the nonprofit.

Now the nonprofit sends more than 1,000 volunteers on 30 trips each year, she said.

“The growth of the organization has been a little scary because it has grown so quickly,” she said. “Not that the growth is unmanageable, but we’re trying to reach more needs all the time.”

The Spokane area has been a huge contributing factor to the growth of the nonprofit.

“Here in Spokane, we take 60 to 100 surgeons, dentists, nurses and anesthesiologists on these volunteer trips a year,” Paxton said. “There’s a tremendous amount of support from Spokane for supporting these parts of these programs.”

Paxton is a 1976 zoology alumnus of Washington State University. Paxton and his college roommate H.S. Wright III, a ’76 Latin American studies WSU alumnus, led a group of 43 WSU students and faculty on the trip this March. Students from Gonzaga University and universities in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also joined the team of medical professionals on the volunteer trip.

It is this kind of dedication and passion that all of Hearts in Motion’s volunteers embody, Scheeringa-Parra said.

Chris Peterson, Hearts in Motion’s liaison for the state of Washington, has been volunteering with the organization since 1989. She said she has a particularly soft spot for Guatemala because she housed Ovidio, a 17-year-old Guatemalan boy with cleft palate, in her Spokane Valley home during the spring of 1997.

Peterson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2010, helps organize the transportation of medical supplies and donations to Guatemala.

“The night before her bilateral mastectomy surgery Chris is still packing supplies,” Paxton said. “A week after her surgery, she is back to helping organize packing supplies for the trip.”

While receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Peterson also helped prepare volunteers from the state of Washington for Hearts in Motion’s March trip to Guatemala, she said.

“In the beginning of treatment, volunteering was a good diversion because it gave me something to look forward to,” she said. “Even if you have a life-changing thing in your own life, life goes on and people still need you and the work that you need to do.”

Peterson is a certified registered nurse anesthetist, or CRNA, at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. She said Sacred Heart has also aided with this volunteering effort by reserving a space in its facility to be used to store medical supplies for the March trip.

Sister Rosalie Locati, director of mission and values for Sacred Heart, said medical supplies, sterilizing surgical packs and medication are donated by the organization for the volunteering trip. The organization also makes financial grant money available for Providence employees going on medical mission trips like this one, she said. Locati said she was a volunteer for Hearts in Motion’s March trip to Guatemala in 2004.

The Spokane Fire Department also donated equipment and supplies that will be used by firefighters in Guatemala. Firefighters also volunteer their time toward Hearts in Motion’s firefighter training program, in which firefighters from the United States help train Guatemalan firefighters.

“The trip has made me appreciate more of what I have,” said Renee Messling, a WSU sophomore biology major from Spokane Valley. “It has also made me more aware of those that don’t have as much. I am now trying to be more conscious of being wasteful or taking things for granted.”

The trip was an eye-opening experience for David Finkel, a WSU junior chemical engineering major from Spokane Valley.

“It is nice to be a part of something where you are not studying for yourself, working for yourself or doing everything for yourself,” Finkel said. “You are actually helping people who wouldn’t be able to receive help otherwise.”

The main volunteering efforts during the weeklong trip in March included construction at the nutrition center, surgery at the Zacapa hospital, dental and medical clinics in rural villages and speech rehabilitation.

“We have more volunteers now than we have ever had before,” Scheeringa-Parra said. “Even during these times of economic depression, people are still wanting to do things that are bigger than themselves.”

Scott Shigeoka can be reached by email at scott.shigeoka@

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