In 1999, during my intern year, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America. As stated below, I wanted to become involved. The program director of my residency was kind enough to view this as a worthwhile educational experience. This is my diary from the trip. Part IV is here.
Our final evening in Juticalpa saw the reunion of the medical teams that had been sent to the outlying countryside. Our friend Jeremy returned essentially unscathed but with a few stories from the hinterlands. His group was lodged in a small house in a distant village. They bathed with buckets of river water from a basin outside the house, ate as their hosts did, and without electricity, fell into the rhythms of local life. Unfortunately for Jeremy, these rhythms included a two-step to the toilet. His illness thankfully lasted in its severest form for only a day. On one occasion a pick up truck raced up the gravel path to his host’s house and two men, guns in their belts, insisted on seeing the gringo doctor who gave their sister a medicine that caused a rash. A local doctor also staying in the house convinced them to turn around and go home.
After washing up, we all assembled for an evening at a local restaurant, and a number of people went later to the local disco, really just a patio along the highway. We were informed that ever since the check-your-gun-at-the-door policy was implemented there had been very little violence. I chose to turn in early.
We had to be on the road at six a.m. to get to Teguz in time to meet the next incoming group. We had only one truck, but we were not burdened by the duffels full of medicine we had brought on our arrival. Six of us piled into the truck bed with our bags, at we headed into the mountains. At this early hour, clouds still clung to the mountains, and we huddled down in the back of the truck to keep warm as we rose into the pine forests.
On our arrival to Teguz we had several hours before our flight to explore the city. Our guide was Ulysses, a young Nicaraguan-Honduran doctor. Both of his parents were also doctors in the city. We stopped briefly at their apartment, a decaying cinder block building on a narrow street. The apartment was well-kept and cozy, and reminded us that our resident’s salary back home was probably not so bad. Our morning included a visit to a souvenir shop and lunch at McDonald’s. We stepped into the hamburger joint from the hot, crowded street and were greeted by a gust of cool air, and a security guard with a large gun. He smilingly let us pass, and we ate our Big Macs unmolested. Our fellow diners were clearly of the local professional class, with cell phones, pagers, and clean shoes.
At the pace we were going, it was hard to stop and think about the trip we had just ended. As we settled into our seats on the plane, a business man next to me informed me that the only flight worse than the landing in Teguz is the departure, with the plane rising abruptly as the short runway turns into a ravine. As I sat and pondered this, the pilot announced over the loudspeaker that he had met some people in the parking lot who had worked with a group of doctors from Chicago, and they had asked him to say goodbye for them. A warm feeling settled over me, and as I closed my eyes, I felt the plane roll toward the ravine, and jump into the air.
It’s been ten years since I went to Honduras, an event which has marked me deeply. It was a difficult time in my life—I was a new intern, I had a sick family member–and I’m sure part of me was looking for escape and adventure (not that the hospital wasn’t adventure enough!). I’ve only read through this a few times, always adding some editing, and I’m not as disappointed with it as I thought I’d be. It’s both more and less naive than I’d hoped. Though I’m hardly old, there is something about being young and succumbing to dreams of adventure mixed with altruism. How much good did we really do down there?
We saw many patients with hypertension, but what was the sense in treating them with the one pill we had available? We could only give them a week’s supply. I drained an abscess near the eye of a young girl, which I hope made a difference in her life. One man stumbled in after lunch, grabbed our bucket and vomited. I asked if he we a drinker, and the villagers replied, “No, he is a Christian,” something which is not exactly contradictory back home. It tuned out he had been spreading pesticide, and forgot to wash his hands before lunch. We had to bribe a man with a pickup truck to take him to the city. I don’t know if he survived.
We gave out vitamins like candy, and M and M’s like vitamins. What I hope we did bring was a sense that these isolated villagers hadn’t been forgotten in the disaster, and perhaps we helped them hang on while the country was rebuilt.
Or maybe not, but I hope that our compassionate motives did the people there even a fraction of the good it did for me. Perhaps some day, when I’m not struggling to raise a family, I’ll get back to the Village of the Vultures. Maybe some of the old folks will share their stories of the great floods, and maybe one or two will even remember a few well-meaning Americans who spent a week with them.