This is the first Austin Smiles trip for Anesthesiologist Dr. Mary Zavala, but it is not her first trip to El Salvador. She was born here, named Acsa Merari Zavala Flores.
She is from San Miguel region, on the edge of lake Olomega by the volcano. Her parents went to the US with a “coyote” smuggler when she was 5. She lived with her cousins for 8 months while waiting to join her parents.
She remembers hiding out during the war. She felt very protected by her family during the bombing raid; they were kept close and told stories to keep them calm. She sustained a neck injury on the playground when another child threw a piece of glass from debris left from an explosion.
Mary and her brother Ever were brought to the US with some American friends of her parents. The Americans drove across the border and passed the children off as their own. Mary was so talkative that they filled her mouth with lifesavers so she did not give anything away!
She grew up in Huntsville and returned to El Salvador twice as a child, once during the war and once afterward. Twenty years later she returned again this past Christmas for a family wedding, and visited her childhood home. Even though the house has been torn down, Mary recognized a mango tree that her grandmother had planted.
When she was accepted to medical school she started thinking about returning to El Salvador on a medical trip. Her uncle Concepcion Flores had a cleft lip repaired about 15 years ago at age 55 by an American group, so she knew about American medical missions in her home country. She took two trips to Honduras with a surgeon during school – she helped with anesthesia monitoring and decided then to be an anesthesiologist.
Currently, she is working at Baylor in Houston, but she met some people associated with Austin Smiles when working in Austin after her residency. When she passed her boards and finally had time to travel, she googled El Salvador Medical Missions and there was Austin Smiles again!
She has visited her family in the evenings during our week here, and hopes that her Salvadoran cousins can join us as volunteer translators next year. Her brother is an engineer in the US and she would love for him to come back with her as well. She plans to come back next year with Austin Smiles, and for many years to come!