People learn Spanish for a wide variety of reasons; they have property in Spain, for holidays/emigrating or they work with Spanish companies. However, I recently helped a local paramedic, Cameron Wyatt, who had a different reason for learning Spanish – he was preparing for a trip to Guatemala City to work with the Guatemalan Fire Service. I recently interviewed Cameron to find out what to expect from a visit to Guatemala and how to prepare for such a trip. It sounds like a real eye opener!
1. Can you explain where you went and a little about your work in Guatemala?
I went to Guatemala City to work alongside the Guatemalan Volunteer Bomberos. The Bomberos are the Fire-fighters and one of two Fire-fighting organisations within the country providing fire/rescue services and basic medical aid to the public. My contribution was to share knowledge & UK patient care pathways in association with experiencing emergencies that are not part of the UK scope of practice and to learn from them in a hostile environment.
2. Why did you decide to go on the placement?
As part of my Continual Professional Development (CPD) as an NHS Paramedic I travel overseas most years to experience, witness, be exposed to and work alongside other Emergence Medical Services (EMS). I choose to work in high trauma environments as it is an interest & I am required to keep my trauma knowledge and skills up to date in the UK as part of my medical registration.
3. Why did you choose to go to Guatemala?
Guatemala City is one of the most violent cities in the world and provides high trauma emergencies, the scope of calls range from Gun Shot wounds (GSW) through to Motor & Pedestrian Vehicle Accidents (MVA & PVA).
4. Did you learn any of the language before you went?
I learnt basic Spanish & medically related words/phrases that would be required pre-hospital. It helped enormously, the vast majority of people I met spoke no English and being able to communicate albeit slowly and somewhat disjointed helped all the same.
5. How important do you think it is to learn a few words and phrases before you go?
On an importance scale of 1 to 10, the higher figure being of absolute importance, I would say it’s a 10.
6. Was Guatemalan Spanish very different to Castilian Spanish (spoken in Spain)? In what way?
The staff I worked with often highlighted differences but they appeared to be minor as I still managed to get the message across and learnt further words & phrases. I believe it was the pronunciation in the main as they also quite often said words in an unfamiliar way as to the way I had learnt.
7. What were the main differences between the work you did there and the work you do here?
There were many, many differences. The main being the ‘unsafe’ environment, the systems of patient care whether it be pathways, guidelines or autonomy as a practitioner, the random GSW calls, equipment issues and expectations. Whilst both countries shared similar calls there was a higher amount of seriously ill or injured patients in Guatemala, in the UK only 3% of calls are judged to be of life threatening status.
8. What did you find most interesting about Guatemala?
Its people, they appear cautious at first until getting to know you a little better, after this they were hospitable and proud of their country and language. My impression was that although many live in hardship they appeared to be making the most of what little they had, I cannot imagine what duress they may have been under due to various issues such as financial & security. I was impressed with the day to day camaraderie too, not just between the fire-fighters but with witnessing how members of the public greeted & treated each other. The food was also very interesting as I eat fruit that I had never seen or heard of in many years of travelling and they were delicious.
9. What was the highlight of your trip?
Summing up the differences between the way we work in our separate countries, the expectations of the public & the more comfortable methods of working without being constantly judged, it’s a genuine eye opener.
10. What were the worst things about your time there?
Witnessing time critical patients that required the fire-fighting crews to have the equipment, training & resources that they so desperately need due to the types of calls.
11. Did anything funny happen?
Unbeknown to me they taught me slang “Guat” that referred to “nether” region anatomy that I thought was genuine Spanish & meaning something else entirely. I used it much to their amusement.
12. What tips would you give to someone else planning a similar trip?
Learn Guatemalan Spanish as a priority, I cannot state how important this is. Expect the unexpected, be humble and take committed time to listen & learn from the Guatemalans. Eat the fruit and vegetables. Be safe, careful & aware of your surroundings.