In February, 38 members of 'Team Honduras 2006' traveled to this poverty-stricken Central American nation to offer medical care—and hope.
Dr. Norm Raymond has finished passing out toothbrushes and vitamins to the children in a remote Honduran village. He is anxious to return to Copan to see more patients during this week of medical missions, but he soon finds himself looking into the eyes of a desperate father.
In a scene similar to the biblical account of Jesus and the Centurion, the father, a farmer named Reymundo, explains that his son is extremely ill. He begs Raymond, a Salvationist doctor from Marysville, Ohio, to spare a few moments.
Raymond enters the man's simple one-room dwelling and finds the boy in bed and wrapped in blankets. He has severe tonsillitis and needs antibiotics. Reymundo has no money or way into town, so Raymond agrees to give him a ride so he can get free medicine from the Salvation Army clinic being held in Copan.
"That boy was sick, sick, sick," Raymond says. "He very well may have died [without medicine]."
It's just another day with the Raymond Project, which ran six free medical clinics for the poor in northwestern Honduras in early February. The Salvation Army's USA Eastern Territory has sponsored the trip each year since Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American nation in 1998.
"Team Honduras 2006" was the largest ever, with 38 members and 10 doctors, including the Raymond brothers—Norm and Frank, OB-GYNs from the Columbus, Ohio, area; Cliff, an OB-GYN in Westerville, Ohio; and Russell, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
In one week, the team treated 3,000 people, the most ever. The group—armed with 31 bags of medicine valued at $500,000—traveled dirt roads through the mountains each day to reach remote villages. Sometimes, the roads washed out, and the group had to walk part of the way to lighten the buses.
Once in a village, the team quickly transformed a school or other building into a temporary MASH unit, often without the benefit of electricity. In one village, to let the people know their motivation, the team opened with a Christian song.
Often using furniture they find on site as exam tables, the doctors see and prescribe medicine for patients, many of whom haven't seen a doctor in years. It's not uncommon for a dog or chicken to wander into the exam room. The clinic was so welcome at one location that a local marimba band provided entertainment.
Major Richard Shaffstall, a retired Salvation Army officer who leads the team, greeted patients as they left the clinic and gave them toothpaste, vitamins, coloring books, candy and Gospel tracts. Salvation Army Captain Edwin Velez, a Puerto Rico native making his first trip to Honduras, was struck by the way people's faces lighted up with each gift.
"People here are grateful for what you do for them," Velez says.
While the countryside is remarkably beautiful, the poverty is unimaginable; the unemployment rate in Honduras is nearly 30 percent.
The Honduran people, outgoing and friendly, show up to see the doctors in their best clothes, but many suffer from scabies and other illnesses. Some have no shoes.
"It's the poorest country in this hemisphere," says Shaffstall. "There are some people who still haven't seen a doctor since Hurricane Mitch. The disease level is so high. What we've been doing is going from village to village all around this area, trying to bring the [disease] level down.
"We've calculated that we've probably saved between 35 and 45 lives every year that we've been down here—just because we were here."
Hurricane Mitch is not yet forgotten, says Tim Kennedy, a psychologist from Sunbury, Ohio. "I've treated a lot of children who, every time it rains, they cry," he says. "They remember Mitch."
The stories of poverty are heartbreaking. Honduras has no U.S.-style welfare system, so the poor often go without medical care. There are scattered clinics, but they cost money and are often hours away. There's a free hospital in the city of San Pedro Sula, but Dr. Norm Raymond says the poorest people are lucky if they ever see a doctor.
"There is no middle class here," says Salvation Army Captain Noe Castillo, a native Honduran. "There is the rich and the poor. The rich live like rich people; the poor live like poor people."
In the city of San Pedro Sula, the rich live in gated communities and hire guards, who sit outside with rifles. Gangs are a problem for the government.
In the remote areas, the men—and many children—who can get jobs typically make $1 a day working in the fields with a machete. The women in this patriarchal society carry water and take care of the children.
That includes women like Anna Clara Ortiz, who is expecting her 11th child. Dr. Norm Raymond treated her for a bad back and says many women like Ortiz develop premature arthritis. "The women work hard, and they have to do most of the work," he says.
"We don't have any money," Ortiz says. "We can't afford to go to the doctor. You give me a lot of hope. As a poor person, I'm grateful."
Xiomara Escobar, 24, is eight months pregnant and expecting twins. She rode her bike for an hour to reach the clinic. "It's good because sometimes we don't have any money, but we still need to see the doctor," she says.
'They're God's people'
Rodolfo Garcia and his wife, Maria, walked 5 kilometers with their three children to see the doctors. Nearly the entire family had respiratory problems and needed inhalers.
"We are happy because we found medicine," Rodolfo says. "We congratulate The Salvation Army on being here."
At the clinic in Copan, Baudilio Reymundo Ramos nearly passed out from blood sugar problems. Dena Sawka, a Salvationist nurse from Danville, Ill., put an IV in his arm.
"He very easily could have died from this," Sawka says.
As Ramos lay on a stretcher, Sawka and 16-year-old Robin Winters prayed for him.
"They're God's people," Winters says. "I love them. [Praying for them is] what we're made for."
Carmelina Jose brought her 2-month-old grandson, Carlos, to Copan so that Dr. Russell Raymond, a Cleveland cardiologist, could examine him. Jose's mother and twin sibling died in childbirth.
The doctors paid for Carmelina and Carlos to go to San Pedro Sula to see a specialist. The boy may later be transported to the Cleveland Clinic for free surgery.
"I am so grateful to the Salvation Army," the grandmother says. "The Lord will repay you. I have hope now. The hope I didn't have yesterday, I have today. The Lord will take care of him."
Dennis Calderon, 8, had a mosquito larva nest implanted in his head and had to undergo emergency surgery. He had also cut his foot, which became badly infected because he had no shoes.
Sawka gave her own socks to a man who had walked to the clinic barefoot.
"It's so good to know that you've made a difference, even if it's a matter of comfort or giving someone attention," she says. "At least we made one day more comfortable for them."
Many patients were diagnosed with parasites from drinking contaminated water. Only about half of the 7 million people in Honduras have clean water, says Gary Vaughn, an environmental scientist from Columbus, Ohio.
Vaughn met with government officials during the week to discuss building a water system for 47 remote villages. The Salvation Army initiated the project, which will be funded by Rotary International and others.
"We are trying to bring water, sanitation, and schools to all the villages," he says. "If this is successful, we may take this to the whole country of Honduras."
Vaughn said he saw a natural spring in one village with contamination just six inches from the source.
"They haven't made the connection between clean water and health," he says. He noted that the Hondurans also need education on hygiene and how to cook meat thoroughly.
Being a light
The doctors trying to help them make that connection gave up an estimated $250,000 in wages for the week, but none of them was complaining.
For Dr. Phil Cusumano of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the trip reminded him of why he went into medicine in the first place.
"It's kind of unadulterated," he says. "We're not billing these people; we're not worried about lawsuits; we're just trying to practice the best medicine we can and be a light to these folks and demonstrate the love of Christ to them. It's very satisfying."
Dr. Roger and Rachel Kauffman, Mennonites from Bellefontaine, Ohio, planned their "vacation" six months ahead so they could volunteer in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. When that didn't pan out, they got a call asking if they were available to go to Honduras the very same week and "we thought it must be the Lord's leading," Rachel says.
After a week in the field, Abbey Raymond, the daughter of Dr. Russ Raymond, said she wondered how she would explain the poverty she saw to her friends in the United States.
"I don't think they'll quite understand," she says. "I think you have to see it."
Nearly every member of the team said they were motivated by Jesus' words from Matthew 25 to help the "least of these."
Diana Winters, a nurse from Naperville, Ill., said the youth group at her Salvation Army church, the Oakwood Terrace Corps in Chicago, donated medicine and vitamins.
"I get to touch people, and that's what Jesus did," she says. "I just feel like I'm getting to do what Jesus did [for] lots of people. I love that. It's like I'm getting to know Jesus a little better."
Carolyn Manigat, a Boston-area nurse on her first trip to Honduras, agreed.
"This is where the need is," she says. "You go where the need is the greatest. You can't just sit by and look at pictures of floods or hurricanes or scabies or typhoid; you have to do something. This is what you're trained for. I've spent 40 years as a nurse, and this is my joy to do this.
"You can sit in a church pew all you want, but it doesn't do anything. You've got to give those words and those phrases and those hymns some kind of context. That's showing the love of Jesus."
The group didn't show the love of Jesus only through medicine. On Wednesday night, the public was invited to a Spanish-speaking service run by the team at the municipal building in Copan. Several accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Aribal Maomicio Murica, the vice mayor of Copan, thanked the team for giving the town a "spiritual lift."
"Since I've become vice mayor, I've met with about 110 people," he says, "but I don't think I met God until tonight."