[Skip to Content]

Nurse Susan Thomas spends her own money to volunteer at medical clinic in Guatemala

Sue Thomas putting socks on a child

Several times a year, Upstate University Hospital nurse Susan Thomas packs two big suitcases—one new and one tattered—and heads to the airport. One suitcase is full of her own belongings; the other is from a thrift store so she won’t mind leaving it behind—and filled with medical supplies, toothbrushes, underwear, socks and shoes.

Thomas, a labor and delivery nurse at Upstate’s Community Campus, journeys to Guatemala on her own dime several times each year to volunteer at a medical clinic that serves the poor. The clinic is staffed through Health Talents International, a faith-based nonprofit that coordinates nurses, doctors and volunteers to treat patients and perform surgeries for Guatemalans with little access to quality health care. Thomas leaves for Guatemala Feb. 8.

For one week each month the clinic in Monte Llano, about 90 minutes from the southern shore, conducts between 70 and 90 surgeries in three operating rooms, running simultaneously starting at 7:30 a.m. each day. Surgeries include bladder repairs, hernia corrections, gallbladder removals, cleft lip and palate reconstruction, and others. Not only is everyone who works there a volunteer—from the surgeons and anesthesiologists to the nurses and recovery room staff—but everyone has also paid their own way.

For Thomas that includes a plane ticket that can cost $500 to $1,400 and a $650 volunteer fee that pays for her room, meals and supplies to stock the clinic and operating rooms. Her schedule is about the same each time she volunteers. She usually arrives in Guatemala on a Saturday and she and the other 50-person staff begin setting up the operating rooms. She attends church on Sunday morning and then surgeries begin that afternoon and continue through Thursday evening. The patients have time to stabilize before the medical volunteers fly out Friday or Saturday, she said.

The days are long and demanding, Thomas said. She is usually physically exhausted and emotionally spent by the time she flies home. But the need is great in Guatemala, a historically poor country that has endured recent earthquakes and volcano eruptions and struggles with access to quality health care. It’s what keeps her going back, year after year.

“It really comes back to why do you become a nurse,” she said. “I help people get through a major crisis situation and it’s so refreshing helping somebody. You’re not getting paid. You have nothing to gain.”

Thomas has worked as a women’s health nurse and doula for 35 years and has worked at the Community Campus since 2013. Her first trip to South America was with her teenage daughter in 1997 or 1998. She has volunteered in Guatemala about 15 times since then and her flight is booked for February. Her trips are not affiliated with Upstate and she usually works several 12-hour shifts before and after her week away in order to not have to use too much vacation time. Most of her trips are spent working at the medical clinic while her annual February trip there is spent building houses with a group from her church.

The majority of Guatemalans live in poverty, earning about $1 per day in an agriculturally based economy.

“It’s extreme poverty but they are happy people,” she said. “They are incredibly grateful for anything you do. They are not poor in spirit at all; you could be friends with these people.”

In addition to her services in the operating room and throughout the medical clinic, Thomas loves to bring supplies, clothing and shoes to donate to patients and people who live near the clinic, she said. The experience has taught her much over the years, she said.

“The first time I came back from a trip like that, you come back and you feel very guilty and you think, why do I have all of this and they do not,” she said. “I think that’s part of what helps me continue to do it. I’ve been given so much. How can I not use it to help someone else?”

Caption: Upstate University Hospital Community Campus nurse Susan Thomas helps a little girl in Guatemala find a pair of shoes that fit. Thomas has traveled to the historically poor country 15 times over the last 20 years to work in a medical clinic and build houses with a faith-based nonprofit and her church.