Jamaica Plain resident Dr. Peter Rohloff believes all interesting things happen as accidents. That certainly seems the case with how he founded Wuqu’ Kawoq, a nonprofit organization that provides health care to the indigenous people of Guatemala.
Rohloff first started going to Guatemala in Central America 10 years ago to study tropical diseases, do field work and work on his Spanish. But he soon found that in the rural area he was working in, no one spoke Spanish. They spoke Mayan.
Being poor and speaking a minority language led the population to be marginalized and limited its access to medical care. Rohloff, who is a medical student, founded Wuqu’ Kawoq to help address those health care disparities, focusing on giving patients high-quality care and knocking down the barriers, both cultural and language-wise.
“We were going to do this and we were going to do this right,” said Rohloff.
Wuqu’ Kawoq, which means the name of the day in the Mayan calendar when the organization started, was founded in 2007 and has grown to help 20,000 patients and currently has 15 employees. Rohloff said target medical areas are genetic and heart disease, and especially malnutrition, given that 80 percent of children under 5 years old suffer from it.
Rohloff noted that the organization has had multiple levels of effect: giving people medical care; teaching people to advocate for themselves; and letting people know that they are not alone.
“We give medical care to some people who would die without it,” said Rohloff.
On a more measurable level, Rohloff mentioned that Wuqu’ Kawoq began working in a new village six months ago. He recently found that malnutrition there went down 30 percent.
“That was very rewarding,” said Rohloff.
Rohloff said that what motivates him are often the cases that have bad outcomes. He relayed the case of a 35-year-old man who succumbed to lymphoma, despite receiving chemotherapy. Rohloff called it a tragedy as the man left behind a large family. But he added, they learned there were systematic delays in the treatment, including losing a biopsy.
“We learned all those errors that contributed to the unsuccessful treatment,” he said. “It was very helpful in learning about what we could have done different. How did we fail? I think those cases are very motivating for us.”
Rohloff, who usually alternates between a week in Guatemala and JP, is currently a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he is specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics. Once he finishes his residency next year, the 33-year-old plans to be full-time at Wuqu’ Kawoq.
For more information, visit wuqukawoq.org. Wuqu’ Kawoq is based in both Vermont and Guatemala.
Corrected version: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. Rohloff as a medical student.