Locally, people know Virginia Run's Birgit Retson as the former PTSA president of Westfield High. But she's also a registered nurse currently in Honduras as part of a medical team helping children.
SHE WENT with the group, Healing, Health and Hope, started in 1991 by her husband's cousin, Nick Retson, a plastic surgeon in Indiana. This nonprofit organization travels to underdeveloped countries to bring medical care to children who'd otherwise not receive it.
"Last year was my first time with them," said Birgit. "One of their RNs had to drop out, so Nick called and asked if I'd be interested."
He created the group because he knew there was such a demand for cleft-palate and cleft-lip repair. "Honduras has one of the highest rates of this in the world because its indigenous to the population," said Birgit Retson. "We also do skin grafts to repair some burn wounds, plus procedures enabling patients to move more freely after the cutting of deep scar tissue from burns."
So far, the group has gone on 18 medical missions in seven towns in five countries. Together, four doctors — a plastic surgeon, a pediatrician and two anesthesiologists — nine nurses and a few translators do what they can to improve lives. Said Retson: "They try to go twice a year and pick places with the greatest need."
The current mission runs Feb. 26-March 6. But even in a short amount of time, the medical team works wonders. "We do about 45-60 surgical procedures in one week," said Retson. "We also treat other things, if there's time, such as pre-cancerous moles, benign fatty tumors and cosmetic repair of severe, deforming scar tissue."
They run a pediatric clinic at the same time and, said Retson, "literally see hundreds of people in one week. In the pediatric clinic where I was assigned last year, we saw adults and children — over 250 patients in five days."
The first day, they screen patients to make sure they can withstand surgery. "That's because they'll not get follow-up care," said Retson. "They don't even have sheets for the hospital beds. If patients don't supply them, themselves, they'll sleep on a plastic mat."
The team also does physical evaluations on non-surgical patients, treating them with medicine, educating them about health and sanitation and directing them to additional resources. However, said Retson, resources are "extremely limited, because these are the poorest of the poor."
THE GROUP is all volunteer. Doctors pay for their own airfare and accommodations and try to raise money to cover as much of the nurses' expenses as possible. Said Retson: "All these people take their own vacation time from their jobs, and the nurses/translators cover whatever costs aren't covered through donations, out of their own pockets."
They also bring their own medical supplies; last February, they brought 70 boxes of medical equipment. "We transport everything we need — medicines and surgical instruments, plus disposable things like gowns and sterile gloves," said Retson. "A lot of these items are donated by hospitals, doctors or some manufacturers. But we have to purchase many of them — like skin-graft supplies — ourselves."
They also bring their own toilet paper, flashlights, batteries, hand sanitizer, etc. Retson also bought a water purifier because all the water there is contaminated. And they bring toys and clothing for the children.
"Last year, we collected McDonald's Happy Meal toys for them and also gave the kids toothbrushes and toothpaste," said Retson. This year, she and her daughter Katie — who accompanied the team as a translator — also brought two large suitcases each filled with donated clothes.
"And during Christmas break, my son Philip — a freshman at Ripon College in Wisconsin — put together 65 starter-pack kits of Legos for the children," she said. "And he's donating all his old Beanie Babies, too."
Katie, 16 1/2, is a junior at Stuart Hall in Staunton. She became bilingual after going through the Spanish Immersion program at London Towne Elementary and then continuing to study Spanish. Before leaving here, her mother said it would be a great experience for Katie to see a third-world country.
"She has no idea how destitute these people are," said Retson. "Some of these cases bring you to tears. So we usually plan something fun, the last day, to break the tension."
A week before leaving, Katie was both eager and apprehensive. "This trip is filling me with excitement," she said. "Yet, I also have an anxious feeling about it because this is an opportunity of a lifetime and I'm truly blessed to be accepted into a medical team to translate for them."
SHE'LL WORK in the pediatric clinic and, said Katie, "I think this experience will help me greatly in life. And it will be really awesome to see the cultural difference."
They're in Puerto Cortes, and the International Lions Club let people know they'd arrived. "They walk down mountains," said Retson. "Some people walk for days to reach us, and yet, they never complain. And they'll sit in the clinic and wait for 12 hours, if they have to."
She said conditions in the operating room are primitive, but they cope. "Last year, our electricity failed, so everyone whipped out flashlights and kept going," said Retson. "No one missed a beat."
They mostly perform cleft lip/palate surgeries on infants, but also on some adults. And Retson said the "befores" and "afters" are truly marvelous. "The next day, they'd look at themselves in the mirror with the biggest smiles, and tears in their eyes," she said. "They'd lived all the way to adulthood with this horrible deformity — which affected their speech and everything else."
She said burns are also a big problem in Honduras because people cook over an open fire and "kids get burned horrifically." She recalled one young woman whose severe scars from neck burns were so tight that they pulled her head down toward her chest. But, said Retson, "Doctors 'released' the scars so she had far better movement."
She said the toughest part is "coming across cases you don't have enough time or resources to fix." But she volunteered again, she said, because she came home "knowing I'd made an impact in a positive way on someone who has nothing."
They hope to return to Honduras in April and, possibly, go to India next year. But money is still needed for medical supplies and nursing costs. To contribute, send checks payable to Healing, Health and Hope, 8053 Cleveland Place, Merrillville, IN. 46410. For more information or to donate supplies, call 219-769-4456 or fax 219-769-1468.