In a culture rarely visited, a Clemson professor has made a lasting bond. The indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala are rarely trusting toward outsiders, but nursing professor Roxanne Amerson continues to impact 11 Mayan women’s lives through her work with health education using a promotora concept.

A promotora is a lay person that is taught about health and treatment with the expectation that they will pass that knowledge on to others. In Guatemala, there are deaths every day from pneumonia and diarrhea, diseases that could be prevented with simple hydration and hand washing.

There are short-term medical trips done all over the world, but Amerson wants to teach how to prevent the diseases before they even need to be treated.

In 2009, she met those 11 Mayan women, who were chosen by their village to spend a week learning about health with Amerson and her Clemson students. A large part of the success comes from the relationship she has developed with her local contact, who runs a private school. Having his backing created a greater level of trust for what Amerson wanted to do.

“We took the approach that we’re not here to tell these people what to do. Instead, we told the women that we wanted to share our knowledge and we wanted to learn from them,” she said. “The local lay midwife is part of the group of women, and on the last class day we asked her to teach us how she delivers babies and takes care of women during pregnancy.”

The education is working. One woman who attends Amerson’s classes noticed signs of pneumonia in her neighbor’s infant. She quickly informed her neighbor, and the child was rushed to the hospital. They were not able to save the infant, but the woman was correct about the pneumonia.

When Amerson started traveling to Guatemala, the 11 women were hesitant toward her because she was an outsider. Every woman walked an hour each way for a week to hear what the professor had to share. They would often bring their children with them, carrying babies on their backs and feeding them throughout the day.

The women in the Mayan culture are the caretakers of the children and the house. They spend their days chopping wood, preparing meals, washing clothes by hand and raising children. The men work in the fields. Therefore, it is most important for the women to learn the symptoms and prevention in their society.

“A lot of women have very limited opportunity for school. Most have never been or have only been for two to three years. It could be why this has been so well received because they can’t actually go to school,” Amerson said.

On one trip, Amerson hosted a graduation ceremony at the end of the week with certificates for each of the women. The students and Amerson hummed “Pomp and Circumstance” while each Mayan woman received a certificate in Spanish and a nursing bag.

Amerson has returned every November with a group of Clemson nursing students to teach the same 11 women, and the same 11 women always return. This past year, two more joined the group.

“We have really established relationships with these people. They keep coming back and feel like they can depend on us,” Amerson said.

During their last trip, the women even brought traditional Mayan clothes for their visitors to try on, inviting the Clemson visitors to share the Mayan culture.

For this coming trip in November, the women have requested to learn about women’s health.

“They made it very clear that they want us to come back and are looking forward to it,” Amerson said.

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