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As the Crow Flies

“As the crow flies…” is a great expression, probably a little bit overused in the US.  We don’t hear the expression here in Honduras very much. Primarily, I guess, because we don’t have too many crows. We do have vultures, “zopilotes” we call them, and they fly across the mountains with great ease. Perhaps that’s more the reason why the expression doesn’t get used that often here. It is just a little too depressing to think on how quickly a zopilote crosses from one mountain peak to the other, a matter of a minute or two, and then to think that the same trip takes up to an hour or two in a four-wheel drive pickup. It’s just a little bit too humbling to think that nature is that far ahead of human ingenuity. Here, the terrain and the elements of the natural world continue to present tremendous challenges to human dominance. Perhaps not so much in the US. Here, we prefer to not remind ourselves how much easier it is to be a crow or a zopilote.

View from Pinares Clinic
View from Pinares Clinic

The Frontera is a really small place, less than 700 square kilometers, smaller than El Paso, Texas. But, there are no straight lines and nothing is ever level. One goes north to arrive at a destination to the south, or up in order to go down. This counterintuitive travel is yet worsened by roads that would not merit the designation of a road in the US.  Steep volcanic mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, but living within them is hardly practical.

San Marcos de La Sierra is the first municipality that one encounters in the Frontera, driving south from La Esperanza. The road here is still at a high elevation and one doesn’t really see any evidence that people live here. Virginia Commonwealth University and Fairfax Family Practices have been coming to this area three times a year for many years. They were just here once again. We dropped them off at the school and clinic in Pinares and we came back about a week or so later to pick them up. If we didn’t know what they do while they are there, we might assume they just hang out and admire the tremendous vistas they are privileged to view. But we do know better.

Old Woman with walking stick
Old Woman with walking stick

Hiding behind those mountains, across ravines and beyond the treacherous slopes, are about 9000 residents. Few of them make their way to the health clinic. This is not surprising. They are poor, simple people. They have all they can do to maintain a small home and, if they are fortunate, a small plot of land on which to farm. They travel to a river for water. They collect wood for a fire to cook humble meals.  They battle daily with a harsh, unforgiving environment so that they can stay ahead of a mortality curve. They remain unseen, forgotten, abandoned, invisible if you will, except for the zopilote vultures that circle their heads. If anyone is going to know these people, if anyone is going to care for them, treat their illnesses, recognize their dignity, then it demands going to them. They can’t come to us.

VCU / Fairfax inside the clinic
VCU / Fairfax inside the clinic

We sometimes look naively upon a just response to inequity and poverty. It would be easy to sit outside the school at Pinares where VCU / Fairfax houses their service team and admire the beauty of majestic mountains. It takes insight, compassion, and even sacrifice to gain the view of a zopilote that flies beyond the mountains with ease. For the doctors, students, translators and volunteers, they brave the rough terrain to make their way to unseen, ignored people who live in poverty. They climb into the beds of pickup trucks, squished in among the bins of medical supplies, and bump along to destinations where most anyone would not dare to go. They stare down the cliffs as they go. They stop when they can go no further with a car because the road has fallen down the mountain. They sling their supplies over their shoulders and into backpacks. Then they walk. Perhaps even as they trek along, they wonder about this odd journey:  going south to arrive to the north, and up in order to get down. Then they finally arrive in a little village, a place mostly unknown. Maybe they look up and see a zopilote circling their heads. Perhaps they indulge themselves with a knowing smile.

Community Meeting
Community Meeting

This is how we discover people. We make our way along treacherous journeys. Once again, VCU / Fairfax has made their journey to reach a poor, forgotten, invisible people. The people they have met are happy and grateful for the encounter. For this journey, to have arrived to where the crow flies, everyone has been enriched.

A Gentle Breeze

We’re in the midst of our brigade season. We started February with UHMLA’s tremendously successful surgery brigade in La Esperanza. At the same time we welcomed the Brown / Wingate team to their clinic in Guachipilincito. Dr. Harris came a week early for that trip, and Dr. Tanksley has stayed on and will be there until May. The small MSHEC brigade, that I’ll speak about more, came just as the first two brigades were leaving. VCU / Fairfax / SAGE is presently working in Pinares. Board members and a whole bunch of good hearted individuals interested in assisting us in our education and nutrition missions are arriving this week. When they leave, we’ll transport our new mission partner, Ohio State University, to Santa Lucia for their generous medical mission. When they finish up, Wyoming will travel to their clinic in Agua Salada. That gets us finally to April, and Laura and I will finally breathe.

Health Fair at San Juan de Dios
Health Fair at San Juan de Dios

Don’t get me wrong, all of these people are incredible and they do incredible work. It’s just that we find ourselves a bit overwhelmed in February and March with the barrage of these groups. And where everything is new for all of them, Laura and I find ourselves doing the same things over and over for two months straight. It’s oddly ironic that this onslaught corresponds with the start of February and Groundhog Day. We pick up, transport, and drop off the various groups that all begin to look the same. We give them the same orientation, the same history of Shoulder to Shoulder, and when we answer the same question for the twenty-seventh time, we do our best to make it seem like we’ve never heard the question before, “Is it safe where we’ll be staying?” But these people have generous hearts, they are providing invaluable services, and just because things are commonplace to us, we need to be aware that these are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that inspire, enrich, and enliven those who come here and those whom they serve. We do our best to keep that attitude in the front of our minds. Still, we find ourselves yearning for the unique experience that can touch us as powerfully as it touches them and those they serve.

Dr. Kyle with a patient
Dr. Kyle with a patient

And how will that happen: with a lightning bolt, or by way of an earth shaking event? Elijah looks for God in the strong wind tearing apart the mountains, then in an earthquake, and then in a fire. God is not there, but God is found in a gentle breeze (1Kings 19:11-13). MAHEC came to Camasca and every afternoon they sat on our porch. Ostensibly, they came to use our internet that by luck is better than any internet available in the town. But for us, their daily presence was a gentle breeze that reminded us that there is a sweetness to life that should not be sacrificed for all the tremendous work that we are given to accomplish. It was an opportunity for us to find something much more profound than all the important work that we do. We became invested in coming to know a few very special people. It is the gentle breeze of friendship.

Braxton at the bilingual school
Braxton at the bilingual school

There were only seven of them: doctors Keith, Kyle, Winona, and Amy; the pharmacist Irene, the pharmacy student Melissa, and Amy’s 13 year old son Braxton (who spent his days at our bilingual school). They were humble and unassuming, four of them veterans to Camasca and the MAHEC brigades. They fit in to Camasca as if they were already residents and family of this town. Because they were so unassuming, it would be easy to forget the great service they provided. Every day they went off to the surrounding communities with Dr. Rolyn, the medical director for Shoulder to Shoulder here in Camasca, to provide field clinics and home visits for many who had not even seen doctors for years. They held a health fair in San Juan de Dios and that community received them with music, food, joy and appreciation. Braxton had a great time with the younger children at our school. On Saturday we brought  them to the waterfall just over the border in El Salvador. On Sunday, Laura joined them on the climb up the Cerro Brujo (Witch’s Mountain). But every afternoon, they sat on our porch, stretched out in a hammock, and watched folks pass by on the main street below our house; a gentle breeze that softens and sweetens life.

Mahec with friends at the waterfall
Mahec with friends at the waterfall

For Laura and me, MAHEC gave us a great gift by the ease of their presence. We want to thank them. For Camasca, MAHEC’s service was exceptional. But here too, I think it is the gentle breeze that will be missed. Amy, Winona, Keith, Kyle, Irene, Melissa, and Braxton are friends of so many here in this small, quaint town of Camasca. The only payment for friendship is friendship. It is not something achieved, but only enjoyed as a gift of the heart. I walk out on my porch every afternoon and I feel their absence. I smile to know that they will return again. The gentle breeze focuses me on what is truly important.

 

 

Is it a Miracle?

The UHMLA (Unidad Hospitalaria Móvil Latino América) has completed its second, successful surgery brigade in La Esperanza, working collaboratively with Shoulder to Shoulder and the hospital HEAC (Hospital Enrique Aguilar Cerrato). They’ve made me think about miracles. At least initially, my consideration of miracles had nothing to do with the incredible work they did. Laura and I met up with them at their hotel in La Esperanza on their second night, the night of the Super Bowl. They, mostly from New Jersey, were expressively routing against the New England Patriots. Laura and I are from Massachusetts; therefore Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are practically members of our family. For three quarters they were gloating big time, while we, with nothing more than a field goal, a touchdown, and a missed extra point, suffered their premature celebrations. Of course, you know how it turned out. It got me thinking about miracles.

I don’t believe in them, miracles that is. Life is too rich in its ordinary unfolding to wait upon supernatural interventions. But I do believe in the extraordinary. I believe that when people come together facing seemingly immovable obstacles; when they focus their talents, energies and wills on achieving something good; when they refuse to be thwarted by the refrain “that’s just the way things are and you can’t change it;” then the seemingly impossible happens. If you choose to think of that as a miracle, well so be it. I just prefer to think of it as the best of who we are, the unrealized potential of the human spirit when we act towards one another with compassion and in justice. This is what the UHMLA surgery brigade accomplished. They too made an unbelievable Super Bowl catch, and the seemingly impossible became a reality.

UHMLA Super Bowl Party
UHMLA Super Bowl Party

Shoulder to Shoulder and the hospital had candidates prepped and lined up for their surgeries before UHMLA ever arrived. But on Sunday, their first day for pre-op and screening, hundreds more arrived. There are heart wrenching stories here of people who have been living with pain for decades. For so many reasons, they simply can’t get the surgeries they need. So they lined up at the hospital. If you’ll forgive me a reference to the bible and a well related miracle –  “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? (John 6.9)” To see so many people with such intense need, but to lack the resources to respond, the members of the surgery team felt disheartened and overwhelmed. The task they faced was certainly impossible. Still, they committed themselves. They worked every day they were here from 7 AM to 9 PM with little rest. At the end of it all, the impossible happened.

Dr. Rolando Rolandelli, Mercedes Rolandelli, and Dr. Rene Ratliff
Dr. Rolando Rolandelli, Mercedes Rolandelli, and Dr. Rene Ratliff

Don Jeronimo, a 70 year old war veteran who had lost his arm in battle, suffered a hernia. He walked to the hospital from a neighboring town because he did not have the bus fare. His surgery was scheduled for Tuesday. He would not have enough money to go home and return. We put him up in a hotel along with another couple in a similar circumstance and asked them to watch out for one another. All three arrived for their surgeries on Tuesday. Another woman in her fifties came with a full uterine prolapse. The gynecologist on the brigade made her a top priority. The smile on these persons’ faces, having lived so long in pain and discomfort to have now found relief, was sufficient compensation for the brigade.

This little girl is seven years old. She is full of life, but a birth defect has left her incontinent and her body is unable to retain sufficient nutrients for her to grow. The surgery she needs is complex and can’t be performed locally. Dr. Rolando Rolandelli has committed to bringing her to the US.

This woman had her successful surgery last year. She heard about the brigade coming back this year so she returned in order to thank them. Good job!

Dr. Susan Kay taught one of the local doctors, Dr. Mario, how to remove this boy’s growth on his face.

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Incredible things were accomplished during this surgical brigade. Miraculous? Well, for those who lived with conditions they imagined they would die with, perhaps the term fits. Yet, with good-willed, determined individuals coming together out of a compassionate and just response, working aside Shoulder to Shoulder and the talented social services doctors and medical professionals at the hospital, I prefer to think of it as overcoming the obstacles and making the impossible happen. Thanks UHMLA for your talent and dedication. We look forward to more amazing catches at the Super Bowl.

  • Stories provided by Kate Clitheroe, consultant for Shoulder to Shoulder and aide to the surgery brigade.
  • See more photos and stories of UHMLA on their Facebook page.
  • Learn more about UHMLA on their website.

 

Bringing About Health

Like most people, I know very little about medicine and the intricacies of my physiology. I probably should know a lot more. I’ve certainly been sick or injured enough times during the course of my life, and often dependent on the services of medical professionals. They always tell me what’s wrong with me, the diagnosis, how they intend to fix me, and the treatment. But I hardly listen. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of my own fragility or mortality, but I’d rather just trust that they know what to do – close my eyes, take the medicine, and hope for the best. What’s most important to me is that doctors and medical professionals have a specialized knowledge of what makes me tick, and that they can treat me with unparalleled competence. I can then consider them gods, always able to fix me no matter how ill or broken I might present. Of course, this is a rather naïve way to approach that which is most important to me — my health and well-being.

Shawn Riser Taylor, Dr. Emily Harrison, Dr. Wayne Hale, and Dr. Simon Tanksley
Shawn Riser Taylor, Dr. Emily Harrison, Dr. Wayne Hale, and Dr. Simon Tanksley

We are privileged to see a lot of medical professionals who come to this tiny part of the world to practice medicine. I am always impressed by the wealth of knowledge they carry with them. They know all about biology and science, and they know how to perform exact interventions that make sick people well. This is of incredible value, and the people living here on the Frontera, without regular access to such expert knowledge and intervention, are eternally grateful. Perhaps they, like me, would want to think of these visiting, medical professionals as gods. Clearly, they should be honored and respected for their dedication and service, but there is something much more basic about health and well-being than knowledge and expertise. The really good, medical professionals understand these basic principles, shun the temptation to be godlike, and embrace the dynamic relationships that make individuals and communities healthy.

At Home in Guachipilincito
At Home in Guachipilincito

The Brown / Wingate mission to the small community of Guachipilincito has invested in these dynamic relationships over many years of service to realize a system of sustainable health and well-being. They were here again recently at the clinic they built and maintain at Guachipilincito. Dr. Harrison and a well-seasoned, professional team with dentistry, pharmacology, and students provided direct care, offering effective interventions. As impressive and important as this direct care is, the health initiative of Brown / Wingate happens beyond this direct care. At an earlier visit to Guachipilincito, they polled families at home visits, asking them what they thought could be done to make their community healthier. They said they wanted to come together in a social context and learn about how to be healthy. So on this trip, Brown / Wingate offered a health fair at their clinic. People who had never come to the clinic or seen a doctor, mostly men from the community, showed up. The medical staff screened for chronic diseases and found two individuals who were suffering with diabetes and didn’t know it. They are now receiving treatment and training to manage their disease. The community learned about health relative to nutrition, the extremely dangerous amounts of sugar present in soda, candy, and snacks that are unfortunately so readily available and cheap on the Frontera. The teenagers from the community offered a hilarious skit on maternal health and birth. Music, good food, stimulating conversation, and a rich sense of friendship guided the evening. Perhaps the visiting, medical professionals lost some of their god-like character in the evening’s festivities, but sustainable health and well-being within this community was certainly advanced.

Brown / Wingate’s “health fair” is happening in so many ways at Guachipilincito apart from those times when they visit and offer direct care. A feeding and nutritional program is ongoing, supported and run by nurse Lesby who lives in Guachipilincito and regularly buys and distributes fresh healthy food to families in need. Dr. Dan Harris came a week early to Guachipilincito to be invested in the life of the community. Dr. Simon Tanksley has remained in Guachipilincito and will be there for three months. He will treat individuals while he is there, but he will also learn from them. He will discern with them the best means of creating and maintaining health for individuals and the community at large. Meanwhile, Brown / Wingate will consider how they can deepen their commitment and service to this isolated and resource challenged area of our world.

The road to Guachipilincito from the neighboring town of Concepción is easily one of the roughest, most challenging in all of Honduras. It is a distance of less than ten kilometers, but it takes over forty-five minutes to arrive there in a four-wheel vehicle. You can almost arrive there walking quicker than in a vehicle. The people living there are desperately poor. It is a place where it is easy to become a god. Though that temptation is great, being a god is as unfulfilling as it is ineffective. Being a friend is so much more challenging, and ultimately so much more healthy.

Perhaps then, health is not solely about specific, expert interventions from people otherwise unconnected to their patients. Perhaps it’s about listening. Perhaps it’s about investment in committed relationships. Perhaps it’s about partnering with individuals and communities. Perhaps it’s about the recognition of the inherent dignity and sanctity of shared human experience. Perhaps health and well-being is everyone’s responsibility, not just those of the gods who happen upon a moment of crisis, illness, or injury. The Brown / Wingate brigade travels to Guachipilincito across the challenging terrain. Because they are committed to the ongoing journey of reaching the people there, they can claim that they are assisting in the creation of sustainable systems of health and well-being.

Robots and Transcendence

 

You might think robots are a fairly new invention. Oddly, on January 25 of this year, they celebrate 96 years of imaginative and real existence when they first debuted on a Prague stage in Karel Capek’s controversial Sci-Fi play R. U. R. (Rossumovi Univerzáini Roboti – Rossumov’s Universal Robots). Robots seem to fascinate human thought, ambition, and dreams. If you’re close to my age, your first memory of robots may be of one simply named “Robot” who flung his arms up and down, teetering in exaggerated panic, and yelling out, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” Beyond that, my Sci-Fi cultural formation has been underpinned by a series of robots:  Rosie from the Jetsons, Rock-Em-Sock-Em robots, HAL, Optimus Prime, the adorable R2D2 and C-3PO, and WALL-E. Our fascination with robots may have something to do with their being created in our own image and designed to overcome the challenges of our finite nature. Though they often symbolize the tragic consequence of striving to be godlike as in the dark theme of Capek’s play, they also relate our sense of inner beauty and purpose. Somehow robots give expression to our capacity and drive to transcend the limitations of mortal existence. The Terminator, later Governator, says it best in his signature Austrian cyborg accent, “I’ll be back.”

Performance of Capek’s RUR in Prague
Performance of Capek’s RUR in Prague

Robots arrived on the Frontera of Intibucá last week. They came with a rather eclectic ambassadorial Shoulder to Shoulder team. Our board president, Wayne Waite, organized the trip of six individuals who had no knowledge of one another prior to the trip. They came with diverse purpose and hope. Paul and Sandy, a couple on the heels of retirement, came to explore and discern a possible long-term commitment to living in Honduras and volunteering with Shoulder to Shoulder’s ever evolving education mission. Ian, a fourth year business major at the University of Dayton, also came to discern long-term volunteering. Haley, a registered nurse from Oklahoma, came to begin her service with Shoulder to Shoulder working with brigades and the bilingual school.  Tim Gunderman, a Knight of Malta USA, a seasoned gentleman whose heart is attached to service to the poor, came to see our nutritional supplement program in action in the hope of raising funds for its continuation and expansion. Not knowing one another and not sharing in any obvious purpose, how could this group come together with a unified vision? And what in the world does it have to do with robots?

The Team
The Team

In 1989 Dean Kamen established FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to excite the youth of America in the value of investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. FIRST sponsors robotic competitions among youth of various ages. Now, FIRST is hoping to move its success among US youth to an international level, sponsoring the first annual “International Robot Olympics,” 16-18 July 2017 in Washington DC. The president, Joe Sestak, of this new non-profit, the International FIRST Committee (IFC), spoke with our president Wayne about putting together a Honduran team for the competition called FIRST Global. Wayne, the undiscerning, don’t-let-reality-threaten-your-dreams, ever the optimist, immediately replied, “Sure, no problem.” Obviously, there have been problems. 

This team that came with Wayne on his quixotic mission had not even known about robots until days or even hours before the trip. A snow storm cancelled flights out of Dayton, moving the trip back a day, and the diverse group of travelers came to know one another while running frantically through unfamiliar airport terminals and hotel lobbies (Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!). Joe Sestak and IFC intended to send a professional videographer on the trip to record the coming together of the team, but that individual could not get a Visa into Honduras because she was traveling from Peru where there is a threat of yellow fever. That obstacle was overcome by renting video equipment in Tegucigalpa and promoting Ian to the role of film crew. Originally, we planned to form a team with two representatives from Camasca on the Frontera with a larger group from the American School in Tegucigalpa. The American School is a distinguished, private school that has a lot of experience with technology and robotics competition. Though they have committed themselves to our support in technical training, they declined our invitation to be part of the competition itself due to scheduling conflicts. Now we had to form a team of high school students exclusively from the Frontera. This was the largest challenge.

Tim Gunderman with a Family enrolled in the nutrition program
Tim Gunderman with a Family enrolled in the nutrition program

Mr. Tim Gunderman has never been to the Frontera, though he’s familiar with Honduras. Driving along the washed out roads with our four-wheel vehicle, taking forty-five minutes to traverse a six mile distance while avoiding the cliffs, he turned to me and expressed his amazement. “Here?!, in this totally isolated, resourced challenged area where water runs only every other day for an hour and sometimes doesn’t run at all. Here?!, where the electricity, when it is not off, isn’t powerful enough to run a microwave. Here?!, where families of ten live on the sides of mountain cliffs in one room huts. Here?!, where the woman in the same house of ten boils hand-made soap on a stove inside the house without a chimney to exhaust the fumes. Here?!, where children are malnourished and at risk for chronic disease and death  and we are not sure if we can find funding to continue their nutritional supplement. Here?!, this is where Shoulder to Shoulder is bringing first-class, computer technology, internet capacity, and robots in order to revolutionize a system of education and create development?” I thought briefly about his question, and then simply answered, “Yes.”

While Mr. Gunderman witnessed our nutrition program and the distribution of the supplement Chispuditos in the small towns of the Frontera with me and Wayne and filmed by Ian, Sandy and Paul with Laura worked on initiating the robot project. Sandy, a retired teacher, has worked with robotics competitions and the LEGO product Mindstorm. In fact she was able to bring the product with her and the teenagers will be working with it over the next months. Fourteen young people from Concepción and Camasca have been enrolled in the program and will work two hours daily on the project under the supervision of local instructors. Dionisio, 14, lives with his family in the small village of San Ignacio. He walks forty-five minutes to and from the high school every day over a mountain. He’s never been outside of Camasca. His father works the land for a living and is a leader in his church community. His mother takes care of her home and makes and sells pottery to augment their meager income. But Dionisio is on the team, he will commit himself to it with great passion, and hopes to be chosen to go to Washington, DC in July.

Robot at the bilingual school
Robot at the bilingual school

I can hear your questioning skepticism. Why? There is always that doubt and fear of technical advancement. If (insert preferred deity’s name here) wanted the human person to fly… But humans do have brains and hearts and they will ever consider the possibilities of transcendence. I’ll let you in on a little secret. This has nothing to do with robots. It has everything to do with Dionisio scaling that mountain every day. It has everything to do with seeing children suffering from nutrition and thinking, “My God, this cannot be allowed.” It has everything to do with six people who seemingly have nothing in common coming to Honduras on a trip and discovering a common goal of helping people to find dignity, worth, and well-being.

Melisa (far left), a robotics student, with Wayne Waite and family.
Melisa (far left), a robotics student, with Wayne Waite and family.

Why was I, and perhaps you as well, so fascinated with robots as a young boy. Why did Karel Capek write a play about them decades before they became reality? Could it simply be the unbounded nature of our imagination? Is the human person enslaved by limitations and mortality? Are we to be forever chained to the scorn and indignity of poverty? Can we move beyond it? I think perhaps robots are the expressions of the best we want to be. Moving beyond the possible, overcoming the obstacles in the way, is the only thing that has ever truly revealed the human soul. We are the designers of our destinies.

 

**** Read an article on the Robotics Project in Honduras newspaper La Tribuna

**** Link to First website