During those long, hot, humid, and exhausting days, we saw, experienced, and accomplished things we had never before imagined possible.
We were a team, 24 strong, who came together for 10 days in the early spring of 2005 to travel to Honduras. We were nurses, physicians, dentists, dental hygienists and assistants, optometrists, and support personnel on a mission to provide medical, dental, and eye care to people who were otherwise unable to obtain it.
Our way was carefully prepared for us by an advance team of in-country personnel who work with Worldwide Heart-to-Heart Ministries, our mission sponsors. We flew into the city of San Pedro Sula, carrying all our equipment, supplies, and medications in 48 pieces of checked luggage. We were comfortably housed in the Flamingos Hotel in Omoa, on the Caribbean coast. From that base, we ventured forth to conduct six outreach clinics in the hard-pressed Honduran villages and countryside. During those long, hot, humid, and exhausting days, we saw, experienced, and accomplished things we had never before imagined possible.
Among the seven registered nurses on the team were four Washington State University alums. We were Tamara Norton ’04, Jeanne Hamer ’05, Therese Jensen, and Rita Catching, all nursing graduates of WSU Vancouver. Assisted by our able interpreters, we worked in the clinics as primary caregivers to our patients. And what patients we saw! In six days we served more than 4,000 people. They came from the surrounding countryside and plantations, the poorest of Honduras’s poor, sometimes walking for miles, then waiting for hours in the stifling heat. Often, we were able to offer little more than a week’s worth of aspirin. That is not to suggest that we saw only patients with minor complaints. On the contrary, we saw everything from gangrene to uncontrolled diabetes to elelphantitis. Sometimes, all we did was listen, but that was more than our patients were used to. One person was overheard to say, “We just want to know that we have not been forgotten.”
Our workdays spanned eight to nine hours. The clinic sites were in schools or community centers. The facilities were basic, lacking air conditioning and running water.
The dental team pulled teeth non-stop, until they had blisters on their hands. The poor of Honduras have no dental care, and their diet consists mainly of carbohydrates. Often, the dentists had no choice but to perform full-mouth extractions, leaving individuals, often relatively young, to live toothless from then on. Dentures are priced beyond the reach of the people we served.
The optometrists distributed more than 2,000 pairs of reading glasses and nearly 4,000 pairs of sunglasses, as well as a limited number of specialized prescription glasses, which they matched as best they could to their patients. One little girl with severely crossed eyes showed a dramatic change within minutes of donning glasses. For the first time in her memory, her eyes began to uncross, and she was able to look straight ahead.
We gave out much more than medications and glasses. Each child received a toy. We offered toiletries to the women and nail polish and lip saver to the teens. By the time we closed each clinic day, we had exhausted our day’s allotment of toys and gifts. Fortunately, we carried enough of the most-needed medications.
In Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, breathtaking scenery clashes with man-made waste and degradation. The people, struggling to survive, create dwellings wherever they can out of whatever they can find. Often, they’re surrounded simultaneously by piles of trash and dramatic natural beauty. There is almost no middle class. People are either very rich or, most often, very poor.
Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Honduras in 1998, damaging more than 30 percent of the arable land, destroying 40 percent of the housing, and wiping out all the bridges over the many coastal rivers. Now, seven years later, those bridges are just beginning to be replaced.
As is always the case in efforts such as ours, we received from our experience much more than we gave. We met intrepid Honduran peasants who, in spite of daunting odds, are hopeful for the future. We met other international volunteers selflessly working to help Hondurans improve their lives. Regardless of our personal political leanings, most team members agreed that what the Honduran people need most are opportunities to improve their lives, educate their children, provide for their families, and care for their beautiful country.