Climbing the Mountains of Untreated Clubfoot
Rumwaldo grew up one of six children in a small rural community perched in the mountains of central Guatemala. His family’s home was surrounded by breathtaking views of lush valleys and volcanoes, and yet the natural beauty of his home was a stark contrast to the harsh social landscape of his childhood.
Rumwaldo was born with bilateral clubfoot – the only one in his family with this congenital birth anomaly that affects at least 1 in every 800 children globally. As a young boy, he tried standing and walking on the back sides of his bare feet, but the pain was excruciating. Instead, he learned to pull himself across the ground with his hands to get from one place to another. For the first decade of his life, Rumwaldo was cast to the sidelines and largely ignored. His family’s economic situation meant that even the children were sent to work in the fields, but since Rumwaldo couldn’t work, or even walk, he was left behind.
“[My mother] said, ‘With that one, he can’t make any money, he can’t provide for us, he can’t do anything.’ So that’s why she just put me aside.”
Fueled by a mix of frustration, determination, and boredom, young Rumwaldo decided to change his situation. He started selling things in the street, crawling on his hands every day to sell his goods. After three years, he had saved enough money to buy a ticket out: his very first pair of shoes. “When I finally got a pair of shoes, it didn’t hurt as much to stand up,” he said. At the age of thirteen, he finally took his first steps.
The painful, grueling work of standing up and learning to walk on his own, however, was only the first of many obstacles. School had always been out of the question – it was too expensive – so Rumwaldo bought a single book and began to teach himself to read, write, and count through memorization.
When he turned 17, he left home and got a job harvesting cotton, then another harvesting coffee. “I wasn’t picky with my jobs,” he said, “I worked at anything there was for me, and because of that, I was able to provide for my family.” One by one, Rumwaldo passed every milestone he’d always been told he would never reach. When he decided he wanted to get married, he was met once again with the doubt, discouragement, and criticism from those around him since birth. “It’s no use trying to find a wife because you won’t be able to provide for her anyway,” his parents told him. And yet, Rumwaldo again proved them wrong. Today, he and his wife have eight children together and more grandchildren than he can count.
Of all the accomplishments that Rumwaldo fought so hard to achieve throughout his life, there was one that always seemed truly out of reach: treatment. In many rural indigenous communities in Guatemala, basic healthcare is still hard to come by today, and six decades ago when Rumwaldo was born it barely existed. Rumwaldo never saw a doctor for his feet or sought treatment.
By the time an opportunity came by way of a foreigner who offered to fly him to the United States for corrective surgery, Rumwaldo was a full-grown man who had established his life, his work, and his family. He was worried about leaving his wife behind alone, and he was afraid that a surgery might make it even more difficult for him to walk. “With the way I am now, I am able to walk just fine. But if they make my feet worse, I won’t be able to walk. That’s why I didn’t go.”
Today, Rumwaldo is 65 and continues to walk on his untreated feet every day. He even climbs the mountains occasionally, despite the pain he feels when walking on an incline. Throughout his life, he has experienced the gamut of isolation, rejection, and exclusion that untreated clubfoot so often causes.
And yet, he persevered.
From teaching himself to walk, to learning to read, write, and count all on his own, to finding work and forming a family, Rumwaldo is the personification of determination and grit. But there hasn’t been a single achievement, even as basic as walking, that hasn’t required an immense amount of effort for him. Rumwaldo says he doesn’t think much about his feet these days, but the painful memories of trying to learn to walk as a child run deep. It makes it hard not to wonder how much trauma and pain could have been avoided had he had access to treatment when he was a baby.
Around 8 million people around the world like Rumwaldo live with untreated clubfoot. 8 million individuals, with similar stories where neglect, abuse, and exclusion from basic opportunities for healthcare, education, and work are the reoccurring themes. The line between the two extremes of thriving and suffering is extremely thin, and access to treatment is what can flick the needle one way or the other for a child with clubfoot. Treatment for his feet was never a part of Rumwaldo’s story, but for the 200,000 babies born with clubfoot each year, it can be.
In Guatemala, many children with clubfoot are born in remote indigenous communities like Rumwaldo’s where barriers like language, distance, stigma, and a lack of economic opportunities prevent them and their families from even knowing that treatment is an option. Through the work of local organizational partners, MiracleFeet supports not only the clinics where children can be treated, but also the efforts to ensure that information about clubfoot treatment reaches the children and families that need it. Life already has enough ups and downs of its own, and every child deserves a working pair of feet to start out their climb.