Hospital de la Familia

Grateful thanks to Drs. Bernd Kutzscher, Andrew and Robert Sorenson

hdlf male patient
HDLF Male Patient

The Department of Ophthalmology at CMPC and its staff and alumni have a long history of volunteering at The Hospital de la Familia. The Hospital, located in the town of Nuevo Progreso, Guatemala, was formally opened and dedicated on February 8, 1976. It exists due to the vision and commitment of three extraordinary individuals: Padre Cayetano Bertoldo, a local priest who was originally from Italy; Jack Younger, a San Francisco Bay Area contractor; and Jeanine Archimbaud, a Canadian dedicated to working in poor communities in Latin America.

In the late 1960’s, while working to serve the local community, Padre Bertoldo and Ms. Archimbaud identified a significant need for both education and medical care in the small, rural village of Nuevo Progreso. They established a makeshift clinic, a dispensary pharmacy, and a sewing school for women and girls.

Hospital de la Familia
Hospital de la Familia

In the early 1970’s they met Jack Younger, who also recognized that the needs of the people in this area, primarily indigenous Maya, were much greater and required a larger effort. Mr. Younger, who was a member of the San Francisco-based private club called The Family Club of San Francisco, raised the initial $100,000 from club members to fund the construction of the hospital. The project began in 1972, with local Guatemalans helping to build the initial structure. Upon completion it was named Hospital de la Familia.

While Ms. Archimbaud moved on to other projects, Padre Bertoldo and Jack Younger remained the driving force behind the hospital until their deaths, Padre Bertoldo in 2004 and Mr. Younger in 2014

Since 1976, medical/surgical teams have visited the Hospital. A large portion of these teams consist of volunteers who have special skills and interest in ophthalmology services, and hundreds of ophthalmologists have visited the hospital to volunteer their services. Many Barkan Society members have joined in this extraordinary and challenging effort by donating their time and skills at the hospital.

HDLF Barkan members
HDLF Barkan members

For decades, eye teams from the U.S. would spend months preparing for trips which required major logistical efforts. Every piece of surgical supply for hundreds of eye surgeries would be cataloged and then requested as a donation from a multitude of generous American ophthalmic companies. These supplies were then inspected and packed for the trip to Guatemala. Physicians covered their own transport costs along with the cost of flights by volunteer staff members. Rather than checking baggage, each team member packed personal baggage for one to two weeks in a carry on and gave over their typical luggage allowance to the boxes of supplies, often 30 large boxes or more. The overnight flight ended with the dreaded customs inspection. Would the donated surgical supplies, often valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, make it through customs?

Once on the road from Guatemala City to the high, volcanic mountains close to the Mexican border, there could be endless surprises. One CPMC physician volunteer made his first trip in 1990, only to be met by a full-scale civil war which led to scores of bombed bridges during the trip to Nuevo Progresso. Every surprise became part of the lore, and there was no way to plan for these unknowns. Once the teams arrived in Nuevo Progresso, there were often unexpected events. On one trip, two ophthalmologists took an early morning hike with their two volunteer daughters. All went well until, after two hours, the trail ended with no sign of a path to complete the loop. When the four finally did return to town, the Padre had the church bells rung in celebration.

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CPMC Ophthalmology residency graduates were among the most active people who volunteered at the Hospital de la Familia. Barkan Society volunteers included Drs. Bob Sorenson and his wife Stephanie, Andy Sorenson, Bernd Kutzscher and his wife Marilyn, Kevin Denny (current CPMC Ophthalmology Chair), Bob Stamper (former CPMC Ophthalmology Chair), George Tanaka, Lee Schwartz, David DeMartini, Phil Penrose, Jim Knapp, John Campbell, Patricia Wong, Mathew Denny, Chris Dickens, Kevin Lee, Ethan Kutzscher, Susan Longar, Pulin Shah, Jane Loman and Annie Kutzscher (Ophthalmology resident at CPMC starting July 2021),

Two CPMC Ophthalmology graduates, brothers Bob and Andy Sorenson, were the most experienced team leaders. They learned that the work could not be completed as hoped for unless there were more hands to do the work. Soon, younger members of physician families came to volunteer, often carrying out complex clinical screening while only in their mid-teens. Several of these young volunteers themselves decided to pursue careers in Ophthalmology. One joined the rest of her three-generation Ophthalmology family in private practice. In the Sorenson family, there were at times, three generations of ophthalmologist volunteers in the same volunteer group. The eldest 3rd generation Sorenson son, Scott, will be applying to the CPMC program soon, inspired by the work he did with his own contemporaries at the Hospital.

After 2015, the structure of the Ophthalmology services at the Hospital de la Familia dramatically changed. Thanks largely to the efforts of CPMC alumnus Dr. Andrew Sorenson (VP and Eye Services Committee Chairperson of the HDLF) along with fellow CPMC alumni and HDLF Directors, Drs. Bob Sorenson and George Tanaka, the Eye Center has found a completely new way to function. It is now a free standing, self-sustaining regional vision center staffed entirely by Guatemalans. In 2015, Dr. José Argueta was hired as the director of the Eye Center. Dr. Sofia Bravo was hired in 2020. By a streak of good fortune, one of the Ophthalmology volunteers from CPMC had met the Hernandez family from Guatemala City many years before. The Hernandez family was also a multi-generation Ophthalmology family, among the most highly respected and highly trained in Guatemala. As members of the Ophthalmology faculty in Guatemala City, they were able to identify and help recruit younger graduates to visit the HDLF and then to agree to work there for several years.

Together, and with the continued guidance of their American and CPMC colleagues, the volume of all services and surgeries now continues year-around, with statistics of productivity that could not be imagined before, when the teams from the U.S. could visit only four or five times per year. At the same time, careful reviews show that the quality of services has similarly improved, making the Hospital de la Familia one of the shining examples of an international program that has matured into greater independence and that will continue to develop, both with and without the continuing support of so many members of the Barkan Society.

Jack Younger, Padre Bertoldo and Ms. Archimbaud would hardly recognize their amazing project if they could return to see it today. It has grown in every way and has gained trust in vast areas occupied by poor farm workers and native Mayans. People walk for days, often from Mexico, to visit the hospital and receive high quality eye care and surgery. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, volunteers would say goodbye to their families, board the flight to Guatemala and have no way of communicating with home for several weeks.

hdlf more patients
HDLF More Patients

Today, the hospital has internet, and visiting teams can check in with family and friends back home. They can even watch a ballgame from home if the internet conditions are exactly right. The Hospital has lifted the entire town and surrounding areas economically with a new premium put on education and hospital-based employment. But the founders would still find many parts of a visit to the Hospital de la Familia very familiar. They would recognize the smiles, waves and parade that greet the teams when their bus arrives. They would recognize the sons who have carried their mothers or fathers for days so that they can have vision-restoring cataract surgery. They would smile at the modest gifts of a bunch of bananas or a small farm animal that represented the depth of their respect for the visiting teams. And they would especially recognize the heart-felt and never-ending expressions of muchas gracias that are such a hallmark for those who have been fortunate enough to join this extraordinary project.