La Esperanza, Honduras - Being up close and personal with scabies, lice and other infectious diseases, not being able to brush your teeth with tap water or consume any fresh fruits or salads, hardly sounds like an ideal spring break to some.
But last week, a team of 34 volunteers — some students, some faculty and some alumni — in one way affiliated with UT, got together as a group and headed to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Central America, leaving the bounds of their comfort zones for a week.
The team, made up of mostly medical students, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioner students, students majoring in Spanish and faculty members, spent months preparing for the trip, with their activities ranging from manually counting and repackaging thousands of capsules and tablets to fundraising projects.
The leader of the trip, Richard Paat, Students for Medical Missions adviser and clinical associate professor of medicine at UT, said this was the biggest mission team he had led and with the most diverse members.
It was his 33rd medical mission, and he said he expected to achieve no less than before.
“We’ve got, I think, a very outstanding faculty,” he said. “We’ve got faculty from the College of Medicine, pharmacy and nursing as well as [a] BGSU [Spanish] instructor, so we have a multidisciplinary faculty that brings a lot to the teaching environment, and they’ve all been down here before, which adds more credence to what’s happening,” he said.
The positions for students were limited and competitive, he said.
“I reviewed everybody’s résumés, and I knew that they were top-notch in terms of where they were in classes, but in terms of humanitarian experiences, they’ve volunteered in the past,” he said of the medical students.
Diane Cappelletty, an associate professor in pharmacy, said the medical supplies come from two sources.
“The College of Pharmacy students have a fundraiser to help [offset] the cost of those meds, and this year they raised just under $1,900,” she said. The medical supplies are ordered through St. Luke’s Hospital in Maumee, Ohio, where Paat is the chief of staff.
The other source is donations from King Pharmaceuticals.
“They collect meds from various companies throughout the country, and they ... will distribute to medical missions on a basis of request and what they have in stock,” she said.
Products donated are usually close to the expiration date, she said, although the team is careful not to accept expired medications.
“It was close to, at least probably close to, $5,000 worth of medications [for this trip],” she said. In total, including supplies, hygiene packs and other miscellaneous products, the team had about $8,000 to $10,000 worth, all packed in 24 duffel bags.
However, the estimated retail costs for the medical supplies were about $250,000. The team had more than 150 types of medications, which were divided into 15 categories, ranging from antibiotics, to de-worming tablets and vitamins.
The game plan
The Lion’s Club, the host for the team, chose five different villages for the team to visit, a different site every day. The site’s school buildings and classes were cancelled on the day of the visit. The team had to use the school desks and chairs to set up a triage station, where the patients register their names and ages, and for children below the age of 12 had their weight and height measured. Then, there were usually about five to 10 clinic stations set up, a pharmacy area and a private room for the obstetrics and gynecology. Most members of the team had the chance to hold different roles throughout the mission.
A typical day for the team started at about 8 a.m. and ended as late as necessary; some days the team members resorted to using flashlights to see their patients.
The team loaded up the bus with duffel bags full of medicines and supplies, piled in a bus and a van rented by the Lion’s Club and traveled to a village called Quiaterique in Intibuca.
The team was greeted with excited school children, seemingly fascinated by the strange-looking group of people taking over their school. Ryan broke the ice with showing the kids how to do the "La rocka" followed by the explosion.
“It’s my first time writing my own prescription, take a picture!” said Amanda Mure, a first-year medical student, who saw a patient with guidance from Paat.
I saw an 87-year-old woman, who reminded me very much of my late grandaunt as she tries on a pair of glasses and wanted to make sure it complemented her features. She got really excited when I filmed her and she was obviously pleased with what she saw.
The first day consisted of a lot of running around, especially for Paat and Ann Reed, professor of pediatrics and medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, as most of the medical students had limited or no clinical experience prior to the trip.
The Spanish-speaking members were popular as well because a majority of the team was not fluent in the language. Two Peace Corps volunteers, Matt and Tommy joined the team, serving as translators.
One of the cutest patient I saw was Ronmel, a two-year-old who lost two fingers to a machete accident a year ago.
Most of the locals who showed up at the site were seniors who either showed up alone or with their grandchildren as most adults were out working in the fields.
We had a pretty chill night. I got into some ethical discussion with the med students. Personally, I think health care providers [i.e. doctors, nurses, etc] should not judge/have opinions when it comes to their patients. Their job is to treat them, nothing else. Almost like journalists, I think, it's not our place to judge or inject our own opinions.
While we were having this intense discussion, of course the "seniors" were downing shots of Honduran Rum, probably reminiscing previous mission trips or whatever it is they talk about these days.
The site for the day was El Cemane, in Yamaranguila, about an hour away.
The team was really excited at the cleanliness of the toilet. There was a roll of toilet paper, which was rare at the sites and the cubicle smelled like potpourri. The experience was almost ... pleasant.
My role today, is measuring the weight and height of kids 12 and under. I had a lot of fun. And as always, I had my bag of Skittles handy, it can almost silence any screaming children!
At the end of the day, Josie Hardy, a nurse and medical missions veteran, gave out colored crayons and papers to the children, which they quickly rolled up and held tightly in their hands, as if not knowing what to do with them.
I took a little girl's paper and drew her name on it, and drew some other "artistic" stick figures, in a way encouraging her to express her creative side. That started the ball rolling. She, [Laura] and her galpal, Duniya started drawing, and drawing, and drawing. Following me around at the same time, anxious to show off their masterpiece.
The team was in Candelaria, San Francisco, Opalacaon on Wednesday. I was assigned to work with Marnie and Carolyn at one of the clinic stations.
Marnie Wagner, a first-year medical student, performed her first wart removal surgery with the guidance of Carolyn Snarkis, an intern at INOVA Fairfax Hospital. The patient had about 10 warts on her right hand and had them since she was young. The process took about one hour.
*I was there to film it all, it'll be posted some time this week.
At the end of the day, a group of children sang the national Honduran anthem, which was followed by shouts of “Gringos,” pointing at their “white” audience. Ryan Squier, a third-year medical student; Joshua Evans, a Spanish instructor at BGSU; Billie Sewell, a nurse practitioner and Jonathan Berger, an intern at the National Naval Medical Center happily accepted the challenge and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with all their might and their right hands firmly over their chests.
** Look out for the video.
Right before the team left the site, a young girl pulled my hand and said, “Que le vaya bien,” which Sarah Parker, one of the Spanish major students, explained that it meant “Best wishes to you.”
The Lions Club prepared a Cultural Night for the team at the terrace of a hotel. Most of the team members took advantage of the little time we have to freshen up for the night. Some of us however, have something else in mind, something much more important of course. Matt and Tommy took us to a bar a couple blocks from the hotel.
We had a traditional appetizer called Anafres. Essentially, anafres is a refried black bean and cheese fondue, served hot over coals in a clay pot. Tortilla chips accompany the anafres for dipping.
At the bar, we met a bunch of people from all over the world. Suzanne, who's part of the group said she works construction but there are others who teach, work with water sanitary, etc. all brought together by a organization call Eye to Eye.
At the Cultural Night, a group of dancers entertained us with their traditional Honduran number. I think most of us had a little too much Honduran rum in us by the end of the night. No one's complaining though.
*ps. My glass just flew out of my hand, I swear! I wasn't THAT drunk!
The team started the day with a two-hour bumpy bus ride to Ojo de Agua, San Francisco in Opalaca. I had to sit on the pile of duffel bags the whole way there!
The team was greeted by a loud, “Good morning,” which was a surprise to many of the members, as that was the first English words that came from a young Honduran. Marlon Gonzales shouted out loud and used dramatic hand gestures. His classmates followed suit. It was really amusing. As if enjoying the attention he got, Gonzales went on with randomly shouting “Nice to meet you” and “See you later” at us.
The village, according to Paat, was possibly the poorest among the sites that the team visited.
At about 10:30 a.m., the children were lining up with cups in their petite hands, waiting to get some mid-morning snack, “leche de harina,” an oatmeal-like texture made of corn and sugar. It has a really bland taste to it.
Paat explained that for an actual meal, in most cases, only sponsored children through programs like World Vision would receive a meal.
** Check out how you can adopt a child at www.worldvision.org, you'll be surprised at how little it actually costs.
Towards the end of the night, Katrina and Jon performed a "surgery" on a girl who had chopped off part of her fingernail in a machete accident about 5 days prior, and had gotten the wound infected.
I think it was a pretty exciting moment for Katrina as it's her first time doing this.
It took Tommy and Chris [peace corp volunteers], Aileen, and a couple other people holding her down and consoling her. I think at one point she stopped crying after the World Vision volunteer told her that she wouldn't wanna be known as the girl who cries in that village.
I can imagine it can be rather daunting with a crowd of maybe ten people or more with flashlights, camera flashes and video cameras surrounding her.
Later that night, we met up with Suzanne and her group again, at the same bar and had a couple "cervesa." Apparently it's the law for bars to close at 10 p.m., so we went next door and got a shady, VIP room, thanks to Tommy. That was a night of many shots of liquor and cans upon cans of beer.
At about 3 a.m., a herd of cows walked by the hotel, it was definitely a priceless experience. It's amazing the way they move, as if the leader of the herd knew where to go, which turns to take.
We went to a town about 5 minutes away from our hotel, which is really close to the city. The group had mixed reactions about the choice of this site.
Some thinks it's a PR move on the Lion's Club part, some said they had rather the team return to the site from the day before, saying that our help is much more needed there.
There are others who think that their help is as needed here than the other sites. Just because health care is accessible [close to a hospital], it doesn't mean that those people can afford to get the treatment/medication they needed.
Right as everyone piled up into the bus and van to head home, a woman came limping towards us. She had a broken ankle. The team offered to give her a ride to the hospital but she refused, saying that her son is waiting for her at home. She was given a leg brace instead.
On the way back, some opted to walk and enjoy the warm night, breathing in the fresh Honduran dust in the air. At one point, Tommy decided to pull a little "act"
He went in front of the bus and dropped his pants, yeap, showing off his pale, white butt cheeks. Lydia documented the moment forever with taking tons of pictures.
*I'll have to post them at some point.
At the end of the night, the team had dinner at the Lion's Club building. Each group of students performed a skit and the nurses won the first place.
The night ended with almost every member of a team breaking out their dance moves. Even Dr. Paat did the worm at some point.
It took us almost 6 hours to get to Copan from Las Esperanza. The ruins site was pretty sweet and it costs us $15 to get in. That very night, there was a huge party outside out hotel.
We went to the Red Frog Bar and almost all of us took a shot of Uterus Shot. It burned. Not the best shot I've had. Then, Zach, Attaya and Kristen tried the Man Shot: Snort salt from the back of your palm, take a shot of rum and squeeze lime in your eye. Yeah, insane!
Towards the end of the night [midnight], some were still at the bar, while some were dancing the night away at the street party. I was just by the pool, enjoying the warm night with bottles of Salva Vida [Honduran beer] and Beaumont [Honduran ciggs donated by Andrew, lol]
At about 2 a.m., I decided, why bother going to bed? We had to leave at 5:30 a.m. anyways. So, Paige got permission from the security guard for us to swim. So, Nate, Paige and I excitedly hopped into the pool.
At about 4 a.m., I guess the locals decided to entertain us with "fireworks" that sound more like gunshots. Nonetheless, it made the night even more romantic, in an odd way. We talked about everything, from Nate's travel to gossiping about the "interesting dramas" during the trip, to the possibilities that lie ahead of me after graduation [this summer!! yikes!]
I returned to my room at 5 a.m., with wrinkly fingers and toes, and smelling like chlorine and to find Katie and Lydia just about waking up.
Right before we landed in Houston, Texas, the pilot made an announcement. "Congratulations to Jon and Carolyn!!" Jon proposed to Carolyn with a plastic ring he bought from Honduras... how sweet!
We all decided to celebrate with shots of "godknowswhat" and the delicious Fat Tire Beer. Jon and Carolyn are off the D.C., while Ann Reed and Josie to Minnesota and Linda, back to San Diego.
“By No. 1, hands down, some of the most common cases we saw were kids with big bellies full of worms,” Paat said.
“The public health system we have here is somewhat lacking, so when your team comes, even though sometimes we can’t solve every problem here, sometimes the referrals that you make especially to Las Esperanza really do help the people and every small things that we do [here] have a big impact,” said the President of Lion’s Club Maria Mejia, who is also a practicing doctor, as translated by Sarah Parker, a Spanish major student in BGSU.
Some of the patients had to travel on foot for about three hours to seek treatment from the team. By the end of the trip, the team saw about 1,800 patients.
“In five days, you see an exponential growth, and you see how much students were able to learn in five days [and that] they would never be able to experience anything like this in the U.S.,” Paat said.
“We can’t cure the world, but we can help one patient at a time, and I think we were able to help 1,800 patients [this time],” Paat said.
“The other important thing about these missions is the exposure to the students,” he said “That’s important for the future — maybe not so much, maybe not this week, but it’s a stepping stone, especially for the students to get them actively involved in international health in developing countries.”
** It was definitely an eye-opener experience for me, from a journalist's point of view. I learned a lot more about the medical field, working with med students, etc., the Honduran culture and just how lucky I am with all I have.