The problems in Comayagua, Honduras, are so numerous and fundamental that it is difficult to know where to begin fixing them. Luckily, there are a group of doctors almost 2,000 miles away who are giving it a shot.
A brigade of doctors, nurses and other volunteers from the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington will travel to Honduras later this month for the seventh time, bringing medical expertise and hundreds of thousands of dollars of medicine and medical supplies to one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere.
Dr. Barry Byer, the chief of Family Medicine at the hospital, founded the brigade and continues as its executive director. For this year's mission, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, Byer plans to bring almost 80 volunteers, including specialists in pediatrics, plastic and general surgery, obstetrics/gynecology, cardiology and physical therapy.
“There are lots of people in the world who want to use their gifts to help others,” said Byer to explain why so many dedicate their time and money to the brigade, noting that most volunteers use vacation time from work and all pay their own travel and lodging expenses.
The help is desperately needed in the area served by the brigade. According to Nelson Martinez, president of the Lions Club of Comayagua, many local villages lack electricity and proper sanitation systems, and the few existing clinics lack doctors and medicines. “A patient that needs a surgery has to wait up to six months for it,” he said. “Many times the people die before the date of the surgery.”
Given the daunting logistical challenges facing this sort of mission, the brigade must do an enormous amount of planning and preparation, relying on help from a variety of outside sources. Steve Woodell allows the brigade to store their supplies and medicines in his shuttered funeral home in Falls Church, and a group of volunteers meets there Thursday nights to sort and label medicines in English and Spanish. Later, hundreds of boxes of medicine, used eyeglasses, wheelchairs, crutches and other supplies are loaded into 40-foot shipping containers to be taken by boat to Honduras. Contacts in the Honduran government help ensure that the shipments arrive safely and quickly, avoiding the normal tie-ups related to taxes, duties and other delays.
Upon arrival in Comayagua, the local Lions Club stores the supplies in its warehouse. The Lions play an important role in the mission, working on logistics and publicity in Comayagua while the brigade prepares in Virginia.
ALL THE PREPARATION pays off during the hectic days in Honduras. After years of practice and refining processes, Byer says that everything now runs “like an assembly line.” People start lining up before dawn for treatment, knowing that this is a rare opportunity to see a doctor and get medicine, and the brigade wants to treat as many people as possible. Surgical teams work in a hospital in Comayagua, while general medicine units visit villages on the outskirts of town to maximize exposure. Students from a local bilingual high school volunteer to interpret between patients and doctors. Last year the brigade treated more than 8,100 patients in five days, a much faster rate than is normal at the hospital in Arlington. “We're very fast because we're so organized,” said Byer.
After years of experience, the brigade is expanding the scope of its mission to train groups of community health workers in two local villages. The idea is to allow community members to treat several common conditions, such as middle-ear infections, infant diarrhea, pink eye and scabies, improving general health in the communities throughout the year and allowing the brigade to be more effective on its visits. “It is only because of the credibility gained over years and years that we can go and train others,” Byer said, recognizing that such a program would have been impossible before they had won the trust of the government and local populations.
In the future, Byer hopes to expand the mission to larger projects, such as building water systems or latrines.
Many of the supplies for the mission are donated by hospitals and organizations such as CrossLink International, a group that supports and equips medical mission teams and procures for them free or steeply-discounted medicines from pharmaceutical companies. Since the brigade pays no salaries, all money contributed to the group goes to buy medicine at these discounted rates.
Byer helped to found CrossLink in the mid-1990s from a Sunday school mission project, and he said that he considers the brigade's work to be partly a “faith gesture.” Dan Tiedge, who is retired from a career in real estate, is a new member of the brigade and also has religious reasons for his participation. However, in general he wanted to do something “more worthwhile” with his life, and said, “We're not a religious organization, we're a humanitarian organization.”