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Medical teams treat thousands in Honduras

BY GEORGE PIPER | ITHACA, N.Y. | January 14, 1999

ITHACA, N.Y. (Jan. 14, 1998) -- Twenty-two years as a neurosurgeon did

little to prepare Dr. Stephen Paul for the rigors of a two-week stint as a

visiting physician to Honduras.

The retired doctor left the comfort of his Ithaca, N.Y., home for a

fortnight to do battle with a wide range of afflictions from malaria and

Dengui fever to dizziness and cold and flu symptoms. By the end of his

tenure -- spent mostly in remote communities surrounded by mountainous

terrain and jungle -- he and the half dozen other volunteers with his team

were seeing about 450 people a day. By the end of two weeks, they had

examined more than 2,000 people.

"They would just come line up at the door," said Paul. "Most of (their

illnesses) would be considered very minor, but it wasn't, considering where

they were coming from."

Paul was a member of one of seven volunteer medical teams, sent to date, by

Church World Service (CWS) to aid Hurricane Mitch survivors in Latin

America. The organization plans to send teams at least through

mid-February, when the emphasis will switch to rebuilding the devastated

countries.

Simply having a doctor in the community gives a tremendous boost to

hurricane survivors who may feel isolated in the remote reaches of

Honduras, noted Oscar Bolioli, CWS' director for Latin American and the

Caribbean. "People saw very quickly that doctors and nurses were coming

there," he said, adding that the medical situation is under control.

Mitch bombarded Honduras in October, killing thousands, leaving two

million homeless and wreaking havoc on nearly every aspect of life for the

nation of 5.7 million people. With a dilapidated water supply and rotting

bodies throughout the landscape, Honduran officials feared a widespread

epidemic for hurricane survivors.

Realizing this need, CWS put out the call to medical personnel for two-week

commitments to help stem the expected tide of illness and disease. "When we

started to make an appraisal of the situation, everything indicated it

could be a disaster in terms of an epidemic," Bolioli said.

Denominations and individual churches often send medical personnel to

third-world countries, said Bolioli. But the magnitude of Mitch's

destruction made it necessary for a coordinated effort under a larger

organization, such as CWS. Doctors paid their own airfare while CWS helped

fly in nurses and other medical personnel. In addition, donations came

earmarked specifically for medical needs, he added.

"It's been a very powerful experience for them," said Don Reasoner, CWS'

interim coordinator for medical volunteers. "People have been very generous

with their time and willingness to go out of their way to participate in

these groups."

Teams comprise five to 10 health care workers, including at least one

doctor, who are placed under the care of the Commission for Christian

Development (CCD) in Honduras, Reasoner said. After a half-day orientation,

the medical personnel are dispatched throughout the country, primarily in

rural communities. The aid is focused in the northern mountain country

where Mitch stalled for days and south of the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

Fortunately disease epidemics that had been forecast never materialized,

allowing the

teams to operate almost like family practice clinics for people who may

have never had a doctor in their village.

After 22 years as a doctor in Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Paul

retired to Ithaca. He saw Mitch's wrath depicted in the news. "I couldn't

justify sitting in the States in a nice comfy home without going down and

lending expertise," he said.

Paul epitomized the term "stranger in a strange land." He spoke no

Spanish and knew nothing about tropical diseases. The man who spent a

lifetime treating brain and spinal cord disorders found himself awash in

skin problems and dispensing cough medicine.

While in Honduras, Paul's team worked dawn to dusk seeing patients while

surviving primarily on a diet of rice, beans and purified water. The crews

lacked electricity and telephone service almost the entire time and slept

at night on mattresses placed on cement floors. Just getting to one remote

area took three hours and 27 mules to transport people and supplies.

"Fatigue and exhaustion were things you just learned to live with," he

said.

Dispensing simple medications became a challenge. While Hurricane Mitch

generated volumes of medical supply donations, organizing them was another

matter, noted Paul. Medicines sometimes were labeled in Spanish and most of

it arrived in bulk form, which left the group to be innovative in issuing

individual prescriptions. Plastic bags proved to be handy in giving pills

to people, but Paul wonders how much of the liquid cough medicine survived

even a short journey in a plastic bag.

With no windows in the clinic, strong mountain winds blew dust everywhere

and made for less-than-sanitary conditions in a medical facility. Paul was

thankful for the CCD personnel who took patients' names and kept them

organized. "Otherwise, people would just run in and overwhelm the clinic,"

he said.

Despite the primitive conditions, Paul left Honduras believing that he had

accomplished a worthwhile task. The Honduran people helped by being

generally warm, receptive and appreciative of the aid from the medical

teams, he recalls.

Staffers kept their spirits up by "naming" diseases and ailments, such as

"Mitch itch" for a rash and "machete elbow" instead of tennis elbow because

the locals often use a machete to cut crops or clear a path through wooded

areas. Being there from Dec. 6 to 20, Paul said it also helped seeing the

occasional Christmas decorations.

It's the pleasant thoughts that prompted Paul to ask for a second tour of

duty in Honduras. He also noted that the medical teams' role goes beyond

bandages and aspirin.

"I think just being there and talking to the people and allowing them to

pour out they're troubles was more important than any medicine we could

give them," he said.

As the medical situation stabilizes, the sounds of hammers and saws will

soon fill the air. Earlier this month, CWS and its partner organizations

announced it would begin sending construction teams to areas affected by

Mitch, said Bolioli. Officials hope to send in February or March the first

of some 200 teams over the next two years.

Other faith-based disaster relief organizations also are contributing to

the rebuilding of Latin America.

Ecumenical work teams under the lead of the United Methodist Board of

Global Ministries are headed to Honduras and Nicaragua, according to the

United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). More than

300 people have already volunteered their services.

Homes, schools, roads and bridges are in need of repair as is the

reforestation of the hurricane-stricken landscape.


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