Virginia Hospital Center nurse Beckie Hallinger, along with a pediatric nurse and a member of their military escort, would don sunglasses and periodically leisurely stroll alongside the line of hundreds of Hondurans hoping to see the American doctors each time the medical mission team visited a new village.
The three were trying to spot those in line who were critical among the throngs of villagers, some of whom had been waiting since 3 a.m. for a chance to get medical care.
"We didn't tell them what we were doing. We were looking for the kids, and some adults too, who just couldn't wait in the line. [Our military guide] would tell them when we went inside, he would motion to them and they needed to come to him," Hallinger of Great Falls said. "We pulled out some really sick kids that needed to be seen right away. We had to wear sunglasses so people couldn't see where we were looking, but some figured it out anyway and would come over to us. Mothers would say, 'Oh, my baby's real sick.'"
A team of about 50 doctors, nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, a pharmacist, a cook and other volunteers organized by the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington — funded by Crosslink International, a group dedicated to equipping medical outreach programs — traveled from village to village in Honduras, from Nov. 9-17, providing health care to people who might otherwise never see a doctor. This was the first trip back for the team in two years. Typically an annual event, it was canceled last year due to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Every single day, we went to a community center and set up our clinic, but neighborhoods were far apart. It's not like McLean and Arlington," said Hallinger, who had been on the medical mission two years ago and had been a Peace Corps volunteer, along with her husband, in Guatemala. He stayed home with their three children, ages 22, 18 and 9. "When we would drive up, you could always tell where the community center was because there were hundreds of people. The people weren't used to standing in line, so we had to make them stand in line. They would kind of part and let us in."
FRED GOLDBERG, an ophthalmologist with his own practice in Herndon, left his new bride of two weeks to take part in the mission. Goldberg had been on a similar medical mission to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch devastated the area in 1998. This time, he was equipped with medicines and donated glasses from his club, the McLean Early Bird Lions Club, as well as from other Lions clubs throughout the local district.
"It was much better that what I expected," Goldberg said. "It was much bigger, more organized, and we had better support compared to the first time I went."
Goldberg had assistance from two others, who would gauge the initial prescription needs of the patients, and then Goldberg would make the final decision based on the patient's medical history and the supply of 6,000 glasses.
"I brought every drug necessary to treat people, then had the students from the local high school act as translators," Goldberg said. The students, he said, picked up on the medical lingo quickly. He said at first he would have to tell the students the name of the medicine, the dosage, the proper usage for the patient, and the possible side effects. By the end of the trip, Goldberg said he could just prescribe an amount of a specific medicine and the students knew the rest.
"I've been blessed with a very good practice for 25 years. When you're as lucky as I’ve been, it’s time to give back," Goldberg said. "This particular population is the most neediest I had seen."
Goldberg said his wife, who speaks Spanish, will accompany him on the next medical mission.
HALLINGER WAS INITIALLY tasked with serving as the adult triage nurse and translator, since she speaks Spanish. However, after arriving, she pretty much did a little of everything.
"We'd go to a center and have to decide how to set up, where the patients would come in, where they would go out, and set up the pharmacy so that we’d have flow," Hallinger said. "My job was supposed to be to ask the adult patients why they were there. But there was always translating that needed to be done and issues to be worked out."
In some cases, people were so desperate to see the doctors, they would try to sneak in, including a man who had been shot and a woman who was in seizure.
Typically, the medical team saw patients with stomach pains or other vague complaints. Occasionally, the team would have a patient with hypertension, diabetes, hepatitis or arthritis.
"There were a couple of noticeable differences," Hallinger said of the patients she sees at home and the ones in Honduras. "When you asked the elderly people there what medications they were on, they weren't on any. And nobody had allergies to medicine, because they hadn't been exposed to any."
AT THE END of each day, the team would return to a hotel in Tegucigalpa and have a home-cooked meal from the cook they brought along on the trip. Hallinger said the taking the cook was a preventive measure, to avoid sickness among the team members from exposure to unknown foods. The hotel was a step up in accommodations from the last trip, said Hallinger, when the team stayed in villages, but it was far from a luxury hotel.
"It was lovely, but it's not a tourist spot," Hallinger said.