Guatemala’s National Pediatric Oncology Unit
The only public Pediatric Oncology hospital in Guatemala specializing in treating pediatric cancer.
I only crossed paths with 9-year-old Litzy Lorena Hernández for a few minutes, but the mark she left on me was significant and enduring. Litzy was sitting in a lounge at the National Pediatric Oncology Unit (UNOP) in Guatemala City waiting for a social program to begin. I could only imagine how she and her nearby mother felt as they continue to navigate her unknown and scary future.
But what a smile. Despite everything going on in her life as a young cancer patient, she gave me a big, beautiful smile when I asked if I could take a picture of her.
Litzy was one of about 150 children at the outpatient treatment center that day last August at UNOP, which is located behind the Roosevelt Hospital in Zone 11. To date, she is one of almost 6,000 children diagnosed with cancer since the year 2000 when the hospital opened. UNOP is the only pubic hospital in Guatemala specializing in treating pediatric cancer.
Its work is mostly supported by the diverse fundraising efforts carried out by AYUVI (Fundación Ayúdame a Vivir), a Guatemalan NGO whose mission is to provide all the resources required to offer a high-quality treatment free of cost to Guatemalan children with cancer. The hospital also counts on strategic partnerships abroad such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, and other hospitals in Chile and Italy, which provide medical training.
Litzy’s particular cancer afflicts her bones and is called osteosarcoma, but there are numerous other types that affect children, including leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumors, neuroblastoma (adrenal glands), lymphoma and retinoblastoma (eye cancer). There are 14 types of pediatric cancer currently being treated at UNOP.
Heartwarmingly, in addition to medical care, UNOP offers a psychosocial support aimed at reducing treatment abandonment rates. This support includes transportation stipends, shelter, monthly grocery bags, dental care, psychological and nutrition counseling, hospice and palliative care, and funerary services. Given that 90 percent of the patients come from low-income families and 70 percent of patients come from rural areas, this comprehensive approach has decreased abandonment rates from 42 percent to under 1 percent today.
UNOP´s facilities are integral to its mission and are pleasant, comforting and inspiring. An attention to detail underpins a deliberate effort to ensure the patients and their families feel empowered and hopeful. Recreation and play are intermingled with diagnoses, treatments and follow-ups. There are few, if any, noticeable differences between similar facilities in the United States and UNOP.
UNOP has achieved impressive success since its inception. Around 50 new patients are being diagnosed each month, and the center now treats almost half of Guatemala’s cancer-stricken children. Its rate of remission is over 70 percent, up from 20 percent in 2000.
With success come high expectations, increased demand and expanded resources. UNOP’s goal is to treat all of Guatemala’s diagnosed children, and to do it for free. Many children are also malnourished, which requires additional support and resources. Late referrals also factor into the challenge, as 26 percent of patients reach the hospital in an advanced stage of the disease.
It’s a tall order indeed, but there is another dedicated component to the operation geared solely toward raising resources and awareness. AYUVI Foundation supports the mission and goals of UNOP and is staffed by caring people whom I met in La Antigua Guatemala during a recent presentation on UNOP. A couple of days later I was kindly given a tour of the facility. AYUVI´s team exudes an infectious level of commitment to the cause of helping EVERY child with cancer in Guatemala overcome an uncertain future with dignity.
To come full circle with my brief encounter with Litzy, just a few months before meeting her I made a small donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in honor of the daughter of a colleague who tragically died this spring. I didn’t know much about St. Jude’s, or about children’s cancer for that matter, at the time.
For more information, to make a donation, or to schedule a visit, contact AYUVI, E-mail: Proyectos02@ayuvi.org.gt – Tel: +502- 2317-7807 or visit: ayuvi.org.gt.
REVUE magazine article by Steven Dingledine