The Long Road to Hope for Maria and Juan Carlos

July 09, 2024

In the highlands of central Guatemala, down a long muddy road etched into the side of a mountain with dense apple orchards flanking either side, lives 8-year-old Juan Carlos. His family’s home consists of two bedrooms built on the steep slope connected to a kitchen and courtyard by a series of narrow footholds worn into the earth from daily use.

Juan Carlos is a quiet boy, yet his shy smile hints that he is excited to see visitors when physical therapist Andrea Sojuel arrives for his clubfoot checkup. As she demonstrates techniques to help improve his mobility, his mother, Maria, observes attentively. She is a petite woman with long black hair and a disposition similar to her son. She wears traditional Guatemalan clothing – a richly patterned and colorful hand-woven güipil and corte and speaks mostly in her native Mayan language, K’iche’.

When Juan Carlos was born in a hospital in Chichicastenango eight years ago, Maria didn’t realize he had clubfoot. He learned to walk when he was small, like the rest of her children, but at 5 years old, an accident brought his condition to light – and his childhood to a screeching halt.

One rainy day while the family was gathering firewood on the mountainside, Juan Carlos fell and injured his foot. Maria didn’t think much of it, but the pain didn’t subside over the next few days, and eventually he couldn’t walk on it anymore. Consumed with worry, Maria didn’t know what to do. “For a cold or something like that, you can just go get some medicine,” she remembers thinking, “But for this, there’s nothing you can do to fix it yourself. You need a specialist.”

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A Pandemic Strikes

Just as Maria began her search for medical care, the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread across the globe. With all the uncertainty and fear surrounding this new virus, Maria decided it was too risky to bring Juan Carlos to the hospital assuming it was inundated with contagious COVID cases. Maria kept searching for help, but the pandemic raged on limiting what she could do. Juan Carlos was unable to walk due to the pain in his foot, and therefore, unable to begin elementary school like all the other boys his age. Important milestones and simple childhood joys alike began to pass him by.

It was pure luck that one day, as Juan Carlos and Maria were riding a bus, a woman sitting next to them noticed his foot. She immediately recognized the curvature – her own sons’ foot had looked exactly the same. The woman told Maria to take Juan Carlos to the MiracleFeet-supported clubfoot clinic in Sololá where she had taken her son for treatment. She told Maria exactly which day of the week the clinic was held, and that all she needed to bring was her identification card. Maria felt a spark of hope hearing this, and a renewed determination. She began saving up so she could afford the transportation cost to take Juan Carlos to the clinic.

At long last, the day arrived and Juan Carlos was able to see a doctor who diagnosed him with unilateral clubfoot. Finally, after years of waiting, he would receive the care he needed. As with so many clubfoot patients, however, the final door to Juan Carlos’ bright future would be opened by his mother’s sacrifices.

The Secret Ingredient to Successful Clubfoot Treatment? A Parent’s Dedication

It had always been up to Maria alone to support her children financially, and Juan Carlos’ treatment was no different. Traveling for days at a time to the nearby city of Chichicastenango, she picked up extra work cleaning houses, washing clothes, and any other job she could find to help cover the costs of traveling to and from the clinic for his weekly appointments. The journey from their home to the hospital was an hour each way, and for months, Maria, barely five feet tall, carried her lanky 8-year-old son on her back shuffling between taxis, buses, and tuk-tuks.

“It doesn’t matter the cost or sacrifices I had to make to get him treatment,” she shared, “What mattered to me is that he was able to walk.”

Today, Juan Carlos is in the final stages of treatment and wears a brace at night. He can walk – and run – without pain and makes up for lost time playing every game he can think of with his cousin and brother. When the toys come out, his apprehension falls away as he laughs and runs to catch a ball before it tumbles down the steep mountainside across the road. His mother says even at eight, he is looking forward to what he’ll do when he grows up, often pretending to have his own business “selling” items he finds around the house to his family members.

Despite all she went through to ensure Juan Carlos received the treatment he deserves, her hope for his future is simple: “I just want him to have all that he needs. I want him to be able to have a good job and provide for himself.”

Thanks to treatment, the barrier of clubfoot no longer exists for Juan Carlos and the door to the childhood – and future – he deserves has finally been thrown open as he heads to school for the very first time.

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