By Grace Rice
From Toledo to San Marcos: Dr. Bill Ahrens's Life of Service
As his oldest friends will attest, Dr. Bill Ahrens has always been compassionate—a trait that grew into a commitment to service during his “formative years” at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio.
Ahrens explains, “Once you get to college, you sit on your own; high school’s the place where the teachers can actually influence students, and the [St. John’s] teachers put a great deal of effort into doing that. It was more than just a place to take classes and go on with your life.”
The Mayan Health Initiative (MHI) works in Guatemala’s Western Highlands—known as the “Altiplano”—the country’s poorest area, and one which faces a combination of poverty, illiteracy, and inequality. The region’s health system is hampered by lack of access to health care services, medical providers, and support staff; outdated equipment; and cost barriers.
Through community-based grassroots efforts, MHI supports programs that actively reach out to poor residents in rural areas. It has recruited Guatemalan medical professionals (nurses, therapists, a nutritionist, and physicians) to serve San Marcos and the Altiplano.
By cultivating and growing local talent, MHI aims to bring needed skills and services and to provide quality medical care through programs including nutrition, rehabilitation, feto-maternal ultrasound, and medical relief.
Learn more at MayanHealthInitiative.org
The St. John’s mission statement includes an aim to educate men for others, and Ahrens is a perfect example of that, says classmate Bill Klaus. Klaus had transferred to the high school in the middle of his junior year and he remembers meeting Ahrens in the lunchroom somewhat randomly. Ahrens was “very compassionate and friendly” even then, he says, and could tell that Klaus looked lost. The two quickly developed a friendship and have remained close ever since.
Ahrens’s compassionate nature enabled him to become a physician double boarded in pediatrics and emergency medicine. While a career practicing medicine in Chicago was fulfilling, his desire to do more led him to begin travelling with other doctors to Guatemala to work at a clinic doing periodic consults. One week a year became two, and that progressed into annual trips lasting a few months. After retiring, Ahrens moved to Guatemala full time, where he (along with the late John Sweeney, a fellow volunteer doctor he met on a group mission to Guatemala) founded the Mayan Health Initiative in 2013.
Sweeney’s son, James Sweeney, describes the founding: “[Bill] kept going back, making friends, studying Spanish, falling in love with the country, contributing where he could. Eventually, after several years, Bill and my father started going to Guatemala on their own. They met and started working with some amazing Maryknoll sisters in their own medical efforts. Eventually, Bill and my father decided to start their own non-profit as a way of attempting to make a more lasting impact, working almost exclusively with Guatemalan partners in assisting them to better their own communities.”