Completely immersed

Trip delivers needed medical and health aid to Hondurans

By Jackie Mitchell ’14

As residents of one of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – second only to Haiti – Hondurans must cope without access to sufficient health care. To lessen the strain of this burden, various organizations send medical brigades to neighborhoods in Honduras, where groups of health professionals set up clinics for a day to provide primary care. The poor quality of health care throughout the country is problematic, especially in rural areas, which is where participants in John Carroll’s 10-day Honduran immersion trip traveled to alleviate some of this affliction and live the University’s mission of being men and women for others.

Margaret Finucane ’80, Ph.D., director of the Center for Service and Social Action, modeled the experience after one initiated by Gesu parish. In February 2007, political science professor Lauren Bowen, Ph.D., tagged along with the Gesu group to learn more about the trip. Bowen led JCU’s first Honduran immersion in May 2007, teaming up with Sociedad Amigos de los Niños, an organization established by Sister Maria Rosa Leggol, also known as the Mother Theresa of Honduras.

Maris Howell ’15 plays with children in Calpules.

Maris Howell ’15 plays with children in Calpules.

The small organization, which provides care for orphans and children whose parents struggle to care for them, started a community in the countryside called Nuevo Paraiso, or New Paradise, which includes three schools, a clinic, and a facility where more than 100 children live in a dormitory setting. Tias, or aunts, care for the younger children with the help of the teenagers who live there. While in Honduras, the JCU group also resided at New Paradise.

“It’s amazing this organization started with just one nun who had this powerful, prophetic Gospel-based vision of caring for poor children and has made it happen,” says James Lissemore, Ph.D., a biology professor who has participated in the trip for the past two years. “The children obviously don’t live lavishly, but they live in much better conditions than they would otherwise.”

This year, 12 students and three faculty members participated in the trip. Many of the students who went on the trip are interested in one of the health professions, but it’s not a requirement. Some participants speak Spanish, although it isn’t required either. An experienced interpreter and a Honduran physician accompanied them on their journey. Local firefighters also joined them to provide assistance and security.

The medical brigade treats people of all ages, ranging from a few weeks old to older than 90. Most of those assisted are women and children, as well as elderly men, because younger men typically work in the fields. A community liaison spreads the word about the clinic, and about 100 Hondurans line up and wait before the group arrives at 9 a.m.

“Some have walked for a few hours, and this might be the only doctor they’re going to see for a year,” Lissemore says. “Some haven’t seen a doctor for a few years.”

The group sets up the medical brigade in a neighborhood center or school and separate the facility into different areas, creating an intake room, where students record names and basic medical information; a room for testing blood glucose; a room for the physicians; and a room serving as a makeshift pharmacy. The brigade doesn’t have access to equipment for medical procedures, but it’s able to treat patients with upper-respiratory illnesses, ear infections, allergies, fungal skin infections, gastrointestinal complaints, parasites, and skin rashes.

“We meet basic health needs,” says Erin Johnson, Ph.D., a biology professor who has participated in the trip for three years. “We travel to rural communities that have limited access to health care and basic over-the- counter treatments, such as Tylenol and Advil.”

The brigade also brings acid reducers, cough and cold medicines, vitamins to improve malnutrition, prenatal vitamins, pregnancy tests, decongestants, and skin creams. The group has a working supply list it focuses on each year based on what they used the previous year.

“They’re items we don’t even think about here,” Johnson says. “If we have a headache, we take Tylenol. They don’t even have it. We take the over-the-counter meds for granted because it’s right next door at CVS. Even that can be comforting to them – knowing tomorrow they won’t have a headache or their acid reflux will feel OK because they have Tums.”

Each student carries a 50-pound bag of medication and supplies to check at the airport. Lissemore estimates the group brought 25 suitcases packed with medical supplies for the 1,000 patients they anticipated serving.

“The greatest responsibility I had as a leader was packaging more than 20 suitcases of medicine into bags that would be handed out to Hondurans,” says Liz Pawlowski ’14, who first attended the Honduras trip as a student participant in May 2012 and became a student coordinator for the trip in May 2013.

Michael Goggins ’15, also a student coordinator, learned about the trip on a tour of JCU while he was still looking at colleges. The immersion factored in to his decision to attend Carroll.

Les Niehaus, DPM, and Michael Goggins ’15 tend to a woman in Calpules.

Les Niehaus, DPM, and Michael Goggins ’15 tend to a woman in Calpules.

As coordinators, Goggins and Pawlowski planned group meetings before the trip so participants could become aquainted with each other and discuss the five pillars of the immersion program:
• education;
• service;
• spirituality;
• social justice; and
• community.

They organized hands-on tutorials to practice taking blood pressure, height, weight, and blood glucose. They also worked with doctors and faculty to order medication for the trip, meeting with them weekly to create a list of items to purchase based on patient data that had been collected the previous year.

In case they run short on medicine, the group has funds to buy more supplies in Honduras. They spend more on medication each year because drug costs increase. Some medication is purchased from the Cleveland Clinic; other medication is donated. Dr. Martin Schreiber ’72 estimates about $6,500 is spent on medication each year. One of the most difficult aspects of the trip is limiting the amount of medication given based on the large masses of people who show.

A nephrologist at the Cleveland Clinic, Schreiber and his wife, Margaret (Monroe) ’84, a former teacher at Gesu and JCU, first traveled to Honduras in 2001 with the Gesu group. He’s now traveled with Carroll on four medical immersion trips.

Dr. Cindy Dorsey ’83 experienced the trip for the first time this year after hearing about the immersion program from her son, Michael Gong ’15, who participated in an immersion trip to Jamaica in 2012.

“I decided to see if I could participate, if perhaps having another physician would be helpful,” Dorsey says. “I hope to return in 2014.”

This year, a podiatrist brought a small surgical kit to tend to ingrown toenails, a minor surgery that requires a local anesthetic. Anything more complex requires the use of a medical facility, so a Honduran doctor is present to offer documented referrals to the nearest Honduran clinic. For example, a woman with a gangrenous toe, who most likely needed an amputation, visited the brigade. Although surgery couldn’t be performed, a physician was able to treat the infection in her foot and provide a referral.

“In some situations, the care we provide, while it might have been a drop in the bucket for that day, makes people feel somebody cared and they were important,” Schreiber says.

Johnson recounted a person who arrived with a machete wound, while Lissemore recalled a homeless man.

“It was like something out of a movie,” Lissemore says. “He had a dirty wool poncho on and carried a staff. When Dr. Dorsey took his shoes off, ants crawled out. Several students were distressed, but the man thanked Dr. Dorsey and said, ‘You touched me. A lot of doctors won’t even touch me.’”

“There’s always one person you’ll care for or you’ll see during the trip that leaves a lasting impression on you,” Schreiber says.

As a new procedure this year, the brigade tested blood sugar and found many people with undiagnosed diabetes.

“We’re trying to incorporate that into the next immersion trip,” Johnson says. “That’s an illness that would require long-term management, and we’re only there for a short time.”

The group visited different neighborhoods each day, anywhere from a one- to two-hour drive away. On the drive to their destinations, they braved highways in poor conditions, often with cattle roaming freely in the streets.

“The highways are three or four lanes wide, but outside the city, there are no lanes,” Lissemore says. “Some places were remote. We were probably driving through winding roads, traveling uphill for about a half-hour.”

The brigade would stay in a neighborhood until about 4 p.m., when it was time to return to Nuevo Paraiso.

“The hardest part of the trip was having to end the day when there were still people to see,” Schreiber says.

Along with the necessary medication, participants brought soccer balls and candy to distribute to the children, who often remember them from previous years. They play soccer with the kids, attend Mass with them, and throw a party on their last night. Some JCU students were designated to entertain the children, playing tag and soccer. Many children would spend a couple hours watching what they were doing in the pharmacy.

The trip was a humbling experience for the Schreibers.

“In your estimation, materially, they have nothing; but you’re so humbled because they’re rich in their faith and so cheerful,” Margaret says.

Despite their impoverished conditions, the Honduran women offered the brigade homemade food as a way of saying thanks.

“They thanked us far beyond what’s reasonable,” Goggins says. “They had a heartfelt reaction at every village we visited.”

For Lissemore, the most rewarding part of the trip was witnessing the commitment and compassion Carroll students have for poverty-stricken people. Johnson echoed his sentiments.

“I’ve seen students’ outlooks change when they experience life in a developing country and what a home in a developing country looks like, with a dirt floor,” Johnson says. “When they understand that, it becomes part of who they are and their broader understanding of the world. The most rewarding part is seeing change in our students. Once they have that insight and experience, they’ll go on to do great things.” JCU

To learn more about immersion trips, click here.

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