Sarah McCarthy, who turned 11 during the service trip, pricks a Honduran patient's finger to test his hemoglobin levels at a medical clinic. Her group saw more than 500 patients in five days.
Upper Hanover residents volunteer in Honduras
There was absolutely nowhere else on earth Phyllis Young wanted to spend her vacation time than in Honduras. And her neighbors, Al and Tammy McCarthy and family, echoed her sentiments.
Yes, the weather there was hot and humid. Around the city of San Pedro Sula, trash was abundant, discarded everywhere, and emaciated animals wandered freely through the streets. Barefoot children played in the mud and swam in dirty, bacteria-infested water.
Restroom facilities amounted to little more than a hole in the ground. Barbed wire and bars were commonplace. Farther outside the city, people live in homes built of corrugated steel or sticks with dirt floors.
But the Upper Hanover residents weren’t there for a vacation. They were there to serve.
Young and the McCarthys, along with members of their church, Perkiomenville Mennonite, traveled Jan. 12-19 on a medical and dental brigade which served more than 500 Hondurans through MAMA Project of Pennsburg.
MAMA (Mujeres Amigas Miles Apart), a non-profit, faith-based organization, was founded in 1987. Established by Dr. Priscilla Benner, the group runs medical, dental and construction brigades all over Honduras, as well as offers education opportunities through school scholarships in both that country and in Haiti. In San Francisco de Yojoa, the organization also established a nutrition center.
Each day around 7:30 a.m., the group joined a Honduran doctor and dentist, along with a physician’s assistant from the US, to travel at least an hour to a village. There, they set up a clinic and saw patients for a variety of maladies.
Young, an RN, said the lines were long, but people patiently waited to see a doctor. Some spent all day walking to and from the clinic and waiting in lines, sometimes four hours or more. Access to health care, especially free care, was rare.
“Word has gotten around that MAMA project is very helpful to the people. They will travel miles on foot to get to the clinic, especially to see the doctor,” she noted. “They usually don’t have a chance to see a doctor more than once or possibly twice a year, even if they are sick.”
In a culture where people are exposed to smoke from cooking fires all their lives, the group saw many respiratory problems. People also suffered from skin infections and were in need of a variety of medications including antibiotics and antifungals.
“Life is tough for them,” Young explained. “It is overwhelming to see the level of poverty they live with each day. We complain when power is out like when the hurricane [Sandy] hit, but they live like that all the time.”
Young said one elderly woman, named Juana, told an interpreter she walked an hour and a half to get medication for her and her husband, who was unable to walk that far. Both needed high blood pressure meds, of which MAMA doctors gave her an ample supply.
The group routinely took blood pressures and checked oxygen levels, tested hemoglobin levels, and handed out deworming medication (intestinal parasites are a big problem there, causing malnutrition). They also administered vitamin A drops to children. Vitamin A deficiency, estimated at 140-250 million worldwide in children under 5, can lead to death, blindness or increase susceptibility to disease and illness.
The McCarthy family, including children, Caleb, 14, Mary, 12, Sarah, 11, and Jonathan, 8, worked doing whatever was asked of them during the week, whether it was counting pills in the pharmacy or helping out in the medical and dental clinics.
The dentist pulled 35 teeth the first day of the trip, Tammy said. With no dental care, teeth with cavities have to be pulled to prevent infection. She said it was particularly difficult to hold the hand of a 3-year-old child who had to have his front teeth pulled.
“He was so brave. The teeth had to come out or they would get infected, but it was hard to watch. I just wanted to hug him after the ordeal.”
“We were humbled,” she noted of the overall experience. “We have so much and they have so little and yet they blessed us with their ready smiles and grateful hearts.”
Al and Caleb, Jonathan and Mary each helped on a construction detail to mix and install concrete flooring in one or two homes in each village. The village leader in each location helped determine who would benefit the most from having a dirt floor transformed into a cleaner, warmer concrete surface.
Al said he enjoyed bringing the “simple joy” to a family.
Young, 56, who serves as the coordinator of birth and family education and as a lactation consultant for Grand View Hospital, said she also spoke to pregnant or new mothers in each village. Through an interpreter she talked about the importance of breastfeeding and nutrition, noting its health benefits.
After each day of clinics, the group held a mini Bible school for the children, featuring puppet shows, crafts and activities and later handed out donations of school supplies, hygiene and toiletry items and toys. Aprons were given out to the women and hats to the men.
In each location, the group checked for malnourished children, whom were invited with their families to live in MAMA’s nutrition center. A mother of malnourished 9-month-old twins was living in the center this month. Young said the male twin wasn't breastfeeding well. His mother had been feeding him the only other thing she had, cornstarch and water.
At the end of the week, the group traveled to a public hospital in San Pedro Sula to give out baby kits including cloth diapers, an outfit, receiving blanket, knit hat, and a toy, like a teething ring, for new mothers and babies there.
By the end of their time in Honduras, a country the group called “beautiful” with “gracious, appreciative people,” Tammy McCarthy said there was a wealth of emotions.
“You are torn between wanting to stay because there is so much more you can do to help and ready to go home because it is an exhausting week. You don’t leave without being changed in some way…The children are less focused on things and more on seeing the needs of others less fortunate.”
“I was very glad to have had the opportunity to share the love of God with the people and to have helped them in a practical way,” Young agreed. “[You feel] very blessed to have been born in the USA.”
For more information on MAMA project, or how to donate, visit www.mamaproject.org, or call (215)679-4338.