1998 NCC News Archives

National Council of Churches logo represents the church 
as ecumenical ship, serving the world

"There Are No Specialties Here:" -- CWS Medical Teams
Bring Medicine, Care to Honduras After Mitch's Devastation

Editor's Note: Four CWS-sponsored medical teams have been sent to Honduras to assist with the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) response, and a fifth team will be sent later this month. Chris Herlinger, CWS/ERO Information Officer, and David P. Young, a photographer and member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), accompanied the first medical team during Thanksgiving week, and also visited Nicaragua to report on local response there by CWS partners. A story by Herlinger on the medical team follows and ACT is distributing other stories. Photos will be available.

NEAR CHOLUTECA, HONDURAS, Dec. 11, 1998 -- The medical team arrived in Mercedes del Perico late on a warm, sunny morning -- Thanksgiving Day back in the United States -- after a 90-minute drive from Choluteca.

They were greeted by more than 100 residents of the small farming community, eager to see a doctor or nurse for the first time since floods spawned by Hurricane Mitch severely damaged the southern Honduran village's corn and bean crops.

The visit was widely anticipated; some had been waiting in line for four hours, and a brigade of villagers had painstakingly worked days before to repair a damaged dirt road to ensure the team of volunteers working through the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) and organized by Church World Service (CWS) and the Church of the Brethren could safely get through. (Mercedes was chosen as a site because CCD, CWS's partner in Honduras has long been active in the community, where it has initiated a variety of health and technical programs.)

Within minutes, the team of two doctors, three nurses and a medical translator were at work. Someone quipped that "there are no specialties here." Work was communal; consultation was frequent. Nancy Robinson, nurse mid-wife from Jacksonville, Fla., and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the unlit, three-room center where the team saw patients was the darkest space she had ever worked in.

With CCD staff, including coordinator Irma Cananza, helping dispense donated medicines, team members -- including nurse practitioners Roxanne Cross of Saline, Mich., and Debbie Ritchey Okeson of Rockford, Ill., both members of the Church of the Brethren -- saw a steady stream of patients. Persistent coughs were frequent; complaints about the flu and stomach ailments were common.

Among those lining up were farmer Santo Davila, his wife, Silvia Senteno, and their six children, ages three months to 11 years. In the month since the flooding, life had not been easy, and medical attention was sorely needed in Mercedes, Davila said. "Ahora, no hay nada," he said. Now, there is nothing.

"The situation was critical even before Mitch, and now it is even worse, particularly for the children," said another resident, Adelina Ramirez, as she held her nine-month daughter, Yarin.

By day's end -- and following a brief Thanksgiving lunch of water, dried fruit and nuts for team members-- it was clear that the weeks of rain and floods had not only caused a lot of flu, but had exacerbated chronic health problems, such as respiratory ailments and parasites, for the 160 persons seen. (In site visits to other areas, Nancy Robinson said, water-related skin ailments were prevalent.)

CCD staff and medical team members concluded that while the physical resilience of Mercedes residents was remarkable, the community's immediate future was far from settled. "They've been through a horrifying experience, but they know they face a new one," said Dr. John Sibley of Aetna, N.H., a member of United Church of Christ.

The problem is food. Emergency relief supplies provided by CCD will tide the community over for a few months, but come next spring and summer, food will be in short supply. It is important now, said CCD staff, that communities such as Mercedes become independent of emergency food supplies as soon as possible, since relief agencies can provide food only for so long -- possibly through the early winter.

"We have to prepare them emotionally," said Dilcia Paz, a CCD coordinator in the area, who said CCD is likely to initiate a program in which emergency food aid is conditioned on the community working together on reconstruction -- a kind of food-for-work payment.

But the most immediate need in communities such as Mercedes has been for medical assistance. "In the face of such destruction, we are focusing our efforts to help alleviate suffering," said Lonnie Turnipseed, former Church World Service director who has been assisting the CWS Latin America office coordinate medical team visits to Honduras.

"Since CCD made medical teams its first priority, CWS made it our first priority," he said, noting CWS's partner relationship with CCD.

A total of four teams have now been sent to Honduras -- 24 people in all, including eight doctors, 14 nurses and two non-medical personnel. The first team that arrived Thanksgiving week had seven members, some of whom did not travel to Choluteca, but went, instead, to Honduras' Mosquitia coast. A fifth team is scheduled to leave the week of Dec. 20, and CWS expects to send teams every week through the end of January.

Volunteers are being asked to pay a flat fee of $822, which includes airfare, room and board and insurance coverage. Spanish language ability is helpful, though not a prerequisite; however, at least one person on the team needs to speak Spanish. Most teams will stay for two weeks, and CWS is particularly interested in forming teams from particular communities and churches. Those interested in more information should call (212) 870-2468.

Reflecting on the experience, Dr. John Sibley said beyond the specific medical attention, it was important that communities like Mercedes be provided a needed show of support in what has been a critical and difficult moment. "Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is show that somebody cares," he said.

But the concrete assistance can't be underestimated, either. By the end of the day, Santo Davila and Silvia Senteno and their six children had all seen doctors and received medicine; one of the couple's sons was seen smiling, carrying some cough medicine. "This is good," said Silvia Senteno. "It will prevent more illness."

-end-

Contact: NCC News Department

NCC Home Page
NCC News Service Index