Juan, a Torch in Patzité: On September 15, 1997, Juan Chiti, in sports gear, was running with his local school along the road from the village of Patzité in Quiché to Sololá. They were escorting the torch to celebrate Guatemala’s Independence Day. Such runs are a ubiquitous scene around the country at that time of year. The group was joined by friends and family. One of Juan’s brothers was also in the crowd, running alongside the vehicles slowly moving on the road to mind the young athletes. It was nearly five in the evening. That is when they heard the first popping sounds.
In seconds they realized they were in the middle of a shooting. The cars next to the runners stopped as the drivers ahead were held up at gun point. Suddenly, the torch carriers and their escorts saw very frightened people running past them, trying to escape. The assailants shot into the fleeing crowd. Juan and his fellow students also turned and ran. Everyone was sprinting, diving, looking for anywhere to take cover on the side of the road. Minutes (which seemed like hours) later the shooting had stopped and those who had made it to safety cautiously came out of hiding to search for their neighbors. At first no one could account for Juan, until his brother found him lying on his stomach behind a car. He’d been shot in the back. At the time, Juan was 16-years old.
Juan spent the next month in a Santa Cruz del Quiché hospital. Like Vinicio, he had little information about what had happened to him. “When I woke up, I was in the hospital with my mom,” he said. “I asked her what had happened, she told me that everything was OK, but she and I both knew I was not.” After two weeks of immobility he was growing desperate. He wanted to get up, and no one had explained to him or his family that his paralysis was likely permanent.
“I didn’t like having to depend on someone. I dreaded being unable to get a job, not being able to find a girlfriend who would love me. I left the hospital traumatized,” he recalls.
Once he was home things improved temporarily, but his mother began to worry after a few more weeks of Juan not being able to move his legs.
“After 14 days we felt the blow,” he said. “We realized we needed a larger bathroom. I needed a larger bedroom, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t move my legs.” Juan didn’t have a wheelchair. He didn’t think he would need one.
“One day a nurse from the hospital visited,” Juan recalls. “He came to our house to talk to me. ‘Look, I am going to tell you the truth,’ he said. ‘You are now disabled. You will never be able to walk. I’m not here to insult you, just to tell you about your situation because I have it bottled up inside me, and I need to get it out. If your family wants to kick me out, let them do it, but I want to tell you the truth. You will need a miracle to walk again. No matter where you go, you won’t get a positive answer.’”
The same nurse then helped Juan get physical therapy, necessary so that he could sit upright. By that time he had been in bed for three months. After a while, he was able to sit on a chair and was taken to the patio. It was the first time he had been outside since his return from the hospital. As time went by, he began to feel weak. His muscles had atrophied and he had developed skin infections from bed sores. Other opportunistic infections threatened Juan, due to his lowered immune response from being immobile for so long.
“Then my mom died,” said Juan. “She had some kind of liver disease, and was taking medication. She had been conscientious about following her treatment, but after my accident, she dropped everything to take care of me.” The emotional blow added to what was already a desperate and complex situation. Juan felt helpless. In his village of 2,000 inhabitants, he was the only disabled person. He had no one to draw upon, no map to follow. That is, until he met a Peace Corps volunteer who told him about Transitions.
Juan’s family took him to Antigua’s Hermano Pedro Hospital, where he met John Bell, one of Transitions’ cofounders. Bell had hesitated in helping Juan because his condition was so serious that he could not guarantee his survival. But Juan was ready for anything. The treatment was complicated and costly, but Bell secured the necessary funding.
Then Juan met Alex Gálvez, Transitions’ other cofounder.
“Alex was ‘The Bomb,’” Juan said. And as Vinicio would later say of Juan, “I wanted to be just like him.”
Juan admired how Alex, also a paraplegic, handled himself on his wheelchair. To Alex it had become second nature. That alone drove Juan’s recovery.
“Now, I’m ‘The Bomb’,” he says, smiling.
Juan started out in Transitions with a scholarship, like others, but is a full-time employee now. He has moved to his own apartment and drives a car adapted to his needs. Others look up to him. He knew he had reached a finish line of sorts, or had come full circle, when Vinicio said he wanted to be like him.
Juan had left Patzité almost on his deathbed. When he returned to visit after a full recovery, he was received as a hero. “People were surprised at how I could handle myself so well,” he recalls. Juan had made his mark in his hometown, too.
“Without Transitions I wouldn’t have recovered my life,” Juan said. “They teach you from how to use a wheelchair to how to become independent; they help you to grow. It’s like being born again.”