SIMPLE KINDNESS: Dr. Sergio Castillo checks on a patient in the pre-operation room, checking to make sure the women understands the upcoming procedure. (Mariah Carrillo)
It's 11:30 a.m. and Dr. Sergio Castillo brainstorms with his close friend Gio Martinez at a long dining room table at Hospital Cristiano in Chocolá, Guatemala.
Martinez, a business entrepreneur, helps Castillo come up with ways to either earn more money, or lower his monthly expenses. This isn’t the first time Castillo has found himself in this situation, and despite the hardships he faces, he remains optimistic. A few minutes after his friend leaves, he walks over to the operating room and playfully grabs a gas tank, pretending to dance with it to make the volunteers from Refuge International laugh.
While most people would be wringing their hands at the thought of not knowing how to pay their bills for the rest of the month, Castillo stays calm. A humanitarian and the founder of Hospital Cristiano, Castillo serves as the only doctor for the small town of Chocolá.
Covering the size of a football field, it is the only hospital for this region. Throughout the year, he receives help from Refuge International, a nonprofit group based in Texas. Four times a year, Refuge International, a medical mission that travels to remote clinics in Guatemala, sends a team of volunteer doctors and nurses to help Castillo perform free surgery to financially unstable patients.
Currently, the hospital lacks high tech equipment and amenities that most hospitals in the United States take for granted, but it won’t be that way for long.
“I have big dreams for this hospital. I want to have it all,” Castillo said. “I want a diagnosis center with lab facilities, X-ray machines, and a sonogram machine. I want to be able to teach the surrounding community and help employ people.”
These may sound like big dreams for a man who worries how to pay his bills this month, but Hospital Cristiano was birthed out of a vision he had when sitting in a friend’s yard, treating patients at a cheap, card table.
One day, Castillo’s friend asked him to come help people. While sitting at the card table, he said, a line of over 100 people formed to come see Castillo. At that moment, he knew he wanted to help these people, but couldn’t do so without his own clinic.
“Sixteen years ago when I told my family and friends I wanted to open my clinic, they looked at me like I was crazy,” Castillo said. “Two years later, I opened my first clinic. Now I have five. My advice to anyone is if you are going to dream, then dream big. It’s not in your hands anyway, it’s in God’s hands,” Castillo said.
“I feel honored that I can help people. I know what it feels like to struggle, and people helped me when I needed it. When I see someone that has a dream but is afraid to pursue it, I tell them ‘let’s go, there is no time to sit around’”
Castillo attended college in Guatemala City, a six hour drive from Chocolá, and originally planned on working in the capital.
But after visiting Chocolá and seeing the poverty of the community, he knew that was where he would practice medicine. He and his wife Veronica came up with a plan to open a clinic.
“We sold our stereo, microwave, lamps, furniture, and even our dog … That gave us about $1,000 and we used that money to buy one examination table, one desk, three chairs and some medicine,” Castillo said.
Running Castillo’s clinic is a family affair. His wife helps with administrative tasks, and his oldest daughter Melissa helps out in the pharmacy when she is home from college. Melissa attends college at her dad’s alma mater, and also plans on becoming a doctor. Like Castillo, all of his daughters have big dreams.
“My daughter Marie wants to be a teacher, and Gabby is going to be an entrepreneur. One day, Gabby’s teacher called me to tell me that she had Pizza Hut deliver a pizza to her at school, and she sold the slices to other students,” Castillo said.
Castillo’s clinic serves the people of his community, including the indigenous Maya. He accepts whatever people can pay him, which means he is often paid in bananas and chickens. Even when he is paid in cash, he usually only gets 30 percent of what the patient would pay at another hospital in Guatemala.
“One time this family said they had no money, but they would give me the most valuable thing they had. They gave me their pet raccoon and we kept it for two years, but he ran away,” Castillo said.
Castillo’s generosity is admired by all who know him. He has developed close relationships with all of his patients and the volunteers from Refuge International. Olivia Park, a nurse and one of the leaders of Refuge International, met him in 2013 when she led her first team.
“He has such a great sense of humor, and he is so humble. Without his clinic, these people here would have no medical access. He has been offered jobs in the United States, but he won’t leave his clinic in Chocolá. He feels this is his calling. He never complains, and he is such a great example of how to raise a family,” Park said.
Castillo’s deep commitment to helping people comes from his faith and the fact that he knows what it feels like to be in need. When he was younger, a Jesuit priest saw a worn out book in Castillo’s hands. He asked Castillo about it, and after learning that was the only book Castillo owned, he opened up his own library to him. That kind gesture stuck with him. One of Castillo’s main reasons for helping people is to motivate and educate them, so they too can see their dreams realized.
“I feel honored that I can help people. I know what it feels like to struggle, and people helped me when I needed it. When I see someone that has a dream but is afraid to pursue it, I tell them ‘let’s go, there is no time to sit around,’” Castillo said.
Castillo believes that acting as a mentor to people is one of the best ways to help people. His high school biology teacher was one of the most instrumental people in his life, and one of the main reasons he was able to attend college, he said.
“When I was in high school, my biology teacher called my dad and told him I was very smart,” Castillo said. “He told my dad I was always pushing myself to learn more and more.”
Even though Castillo may not get paid in cash, he has been paid in more rewarding ways. Alba Elizabeth Bac, one of his favorite patients, has been coming to see him for the past ten years.
“I met him when he performed an emergency surgery on my mom at his hospital in San Antonio,” Bac said. “He is very friendly and attentive, and he helped me through my pregnancy and delivered my son. To show appreciation, I named my son after him.”
Dr. Sergio Castillo checks on a patient in the pre-operation room. Castillo checks to make sure the women understands the procedure.