The history of the Chiapas Project

The Chiapas Project started in August ’01. My then 16 year old son, Nicholas Michael Brody (Reed College 2009), spent 9 weeks at one of the boys’ Salesian orphanages in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala. When the Sisters learned that I was a physician, and my husband a dentist, they asked us to travel to a Salesian outpost in Ocotepec to help the indigenous Zoque Indians.

Traveling was quite an adventure. Though it was only 67 miles, it took us 4 ½ hours to get from Tuxtla to Ocotepec, due to road washouts, giant boulders in the middle of the road and felled trees. About halfway there, the “pavement” ran out. Since our first trip, the Mexican Government has been improving the road to Ocotepec, so the ride isn’t nearly as grueling as it once was (the ride now takes less than 2 1/2 hours). The trip to Ocotepec takes you through rainforests, farmland, deciduous forests, up mountains, and through valleys. It is incredibly beautiful.

Ocotepec has about 8000 inhabitants, in 19 local communities. Some are only accessible by footpaths, though the government has begun to expand the road infrastructure. Much of the population lives in poverty and many lack electricity and running water. The people’s staple diet is corn, rice and beans, a diet is deficient in protein and most vitamins, especially calcium. Malnourishment is seen frequently, particularly among the children and pregnant women. Parasites and worms are endemic. Tropical and infectious diseases are found that I vaguely remember from medical school, including pork tapeworm infection of the central nervous system.

Women usually marry at a young age and begin having children soon thereafter. Birth control is very limited, making family planning extremely difficult for these communities. Many women only speak Zoque, though the younger generations usually speak Spanish. Doctors can be hours away from the town, and many people cannot afford to be see one. Lay midwives deliver the vast majority of the local women. We have seen numerous maternal and childhood diseases, many of which are treatable with adequate medical care. There is a local pharmacy where the pharmacist will dispense whatever he thinks is needed, but unfortunately most patients can’t afford a few pesos for medication.

We do not charge for care at The Chiapas Project Clinic. However, we have been given tomales, corn, and even a chicken as gifts from patients!

Fortunately, major U.S. drug companies, hospitals, local Rotarians, and Rotary International have donated a large amount of prescription and non-prescription medication to us as well as monetary donations. We also receive donations of syringes, surgical/dental instruments and supplies from local doctors, hospitals, dentists and supply houses. Our volunteers travel into some of the more distant villages to treat those too sick to walk to Ocotepec. My husband, David, extracts hundreads of teeth each time we visit, but often limits it to 4 of the worst teeth per patient due to his long lines. Many of his patients had such severe dental decay and periodontal disease; he could have pulled out many more. On our first trip, he used a reclining deck chair as his dental chair, and his patients spit into cups, since he didn’t have suction. Fortunately, we now have drills and suction, making fillings and preventative care like fluoride varnishes much easier. A generator to run the dental drill was donated by the student council of a local NJ high school.

We make this journey twice each year, in March and August. We are always in need of more dentists and physicians, which will allow us to venture out into the more outlying villages. In addition to teaching the “partaras”-the lay midwives of the region about Obstetrical emergencies, and supplying them all with a basic delivery kit, I’ve also spent some time teaching the 4 “herbal doctors”-3 graduated from high school, and one from 8th grade. Medical/dental/premed students, residents, EMT’s, technicians and nurses are also welcome, as are “shleppers”.

We are loking forward to the day when a clinic provides care year-round. The community council has given us land for the clinic, and now we are in the planning phase. We are told we can build a very fundimental hospital for under $500,000.00, including an operating and dental suite, pharmacy, examination rooms and a small ward for in-patients.

I hope that I have given you a little more insight into the region and our work there, but if you have more questions, please do not hesitate to contact us. We hope to see you on a Chiapas Project trip soon!


Joanne Liegner, MD

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