“We are number one!”


This seemed to be the message that Carlos was giving me upon entering the exam room.
Carlos — a smiling 12 year-old from a neighboring village — continued to extend his left index finger as we chatted about his visit and started his exam. Six months earlier, he had received a cutting injury to his palm, had it sutured, and eventually saw his skin heal nicely.

The cut flexor tendons of his finger, however, left Carlos’ hand in his permanently-celebrating position. “Could this be fixed?” asked his eager mother.

A single thought struck me as I reflected on this mother’s hope for her child’s healing, and on the privileged relationship a physician has with his patient. That thought was how fortunate I was, to be at that place and in that time. To participate in this healing profession, and to do so in a simple and unobstructed setting, provided me with a pure taste of what it is to be a physician.
On a sunny Spring morning at our surgery center, Carlos had reparative surgery on his disabled hand. The surgeon — who repaired the tendon to restore Carlos’ grip and dexterity — also rejoices at the opportunity to bring her skills to neighbors in need.

Some wound care and physical therapy are in Carlos’ future. He will receive those from the health care professionals who collaborate with our local physicians — some of whom, like me, volunteer through Mission Doctors of America.

Soon, Carlos will be celebrating with his index finger extended, but this time he will do so with all ten of them working.




Cancel that Corona

 20 March 2020

Very possibly, yesterday I did something that no one else has ever done.
After protecting myself with astronaut suit, mask and gloves, I gave a Clorox bath to a pickup truck full of watermelons. 

Of course, not all by myself. Dra. Dora and I teamed up, and upon receiving the Ranch’s first Coronavirus-era shipment of food from Tegucigalpa’s crowded market, we made the 150 much-handled melons safe for the many hands that awaited them.
How dizzying it is to look back at the past eight days. 

First, because of the increasing Coronavirus threat to Honduras, NPH stopped all its community programs, released all nonessential employees, closed the school, and discontinued the medical work in the External Clinic and Surgery Center. Moreover, one of our Volunteers who had shown classic Coronavirus symptoms, was isolated while we awaited his test results. Unfortunately, Honduras (with only a handful of Intensive Care Unit beds for a population of 9 million) would face certain devastation in trying to manage an outbreak. 

Sunday, after discerning that staying our entire stint at NPH Honduras was not well advised, Susan and I rearranged our return flight to Texas in order to leave within the next few days. Then, we notified the others of our change in plans.
Not so fast. Sunday night, Honduras closed its borders. 

Soon after, a presidential decree also halted bus traffic in the country, and required residents of the major population areas to stay home. National police enforced the curfew. Few stores were opened — and those for only limited hours.
Meanwhile, back at the Ranch: returning High School and University students were briefed, examined, and then sent into quarantine as they entered the NPH front gate.
All the children were to be in groups no bigger than their own hogar, had to stop hugging, and were drilled on catching their coughs and sneezes in the angle of their elbows. 

Finally, the dreaded advice from NPH International: all Volunteers should return to their home countries. They were invited to stay on the Ranch only with a liability waiver. 

Today’s early morning transportation left the Ranch carrying Claire, Michaela, Erin, Chau-Nhi, Lauren, Sofie, Susan and me. Only seven hours prior, Arielle — our diligent Volunteer Coordinator — had breathlessly delivered us the instruction to pack up and be ready to leave Honduras, in what might be our only chance to do so for a while. Though we were excited and energized, our spirits sank at the thought of what we were leaving behind. We would miss the camaraderie of our work, the nightly squeal of the noisy chicharas and the simplicity of the meals. But mostly we would miss the bonds with our community. Though we knew we would return to the Ranch next year, we worried about those we love and serve, and how they might fare in a pandemic in this poor country of limited resources and unpredictable government.
Moreover, there was no time for goodbyes. 

Once the US embassy representatives confirmed that we were all allowed on the airplane, we bid Victor farewell and hopped off the van — lugging heavy suitcases and wearing our N-95 masks and protective gloves. 

Now, I sit in the mesh seat of a US Air Force C-130 transport, flying over the Gulf of Mexico, along with 80 other fleeing US citizens. Our unlikely group is comprised of people from the diplomatic corps, their families, volunteers, and a US women’s tackle football team — who had just completed an exhibition tournament in Central America. Thanks largely to this team and its persistence with US lawmakers, governors — and even a Fox News interview from the Clarion Hotel in Tegucigalpa — here we all are.
As I look around the airplane, my heart smiles. What an assortment of Americans! In spite of the admitted polarization, contentiousness and noise in our days, this is what our country does well. To put what unites us ahead of what separates us. 

This is also what we human beings do well. To see and to embrace the human dignity that inhabits each of us. 

Tonight, as I lay my head on a pillow somewhere in Charleston, South Carolina, it will be filled with dreams of a return to a familiar — but changed — America. Being back in the Lone Star State will be especially welcomed. 

Perhaps a slab of brisket at Earl Campbell’s in the Austin-Bergstrom Airport. No beans, please. 

Perhaps a Shiner Blonde to toast our recent adventure. 
No Corona, PLEASE ! 









Nora

Today was to be a Saturday to sleep late, to catch up, and to clean up at the Ranch.
     Instead, the little boys gathered early for breakfast, sporting combed hair and
                  collared shirts.
     Instead, incense filled the air, rather than the familiar mop-cleaning solution.
     Instead, holy water puddled like potholes at our feet in the chapel.
     Instead, it was a morning of stories and song, of laughter and tears.

Last night, Nora* died. Nora — an 86 year-old long-time resident of the “Abuelo home” — succumbed to some combination of a fall, subdural hematoma and pneumonia. At her funeral today, her community put aside its plans, and united in recognition of the life of one of its own.



The bouquet that tenderly encircled Nora’s coffin was formed by hundreds of faces. Faces of the young, the old, of those who knew and loved Nora, and those who did not.



Each person had his chance to say goodbye, to take a look at, and to embrace the box that held Nora’s body. Each person had the chance to reflect on how their life and Nora’s connected. Each person could more clearly see themselves in this mysterious journey of life, and could gain a better understanding of where this road takes us.



Life is like this. It comes to us ready or not, bringing unforeseen detours, amid our pains and our joys. It comes to us through sights, sounds and smells.

If it is true that “God comes to you disguised as your life*,” then He has touched ours with Nora’s. May we all rejoice in this unwieldy gift of life.

Tomorrow, we will clean up.

*1 Name changed 
*2 Paula D’Arcy

Blurry Lines


In a community like this, the lines that separate one’s roles as

            - physician,
            - stand-in parent,
            - encouraging advocate,
            - listening friend   

may become blurry.

Professional and social boundaries often direct us to define those lines of separation, and to remain aware of the “hat that we are wearing.”  However, life’s situations often make us realize that we are already wearing more than one:

            Sharing a seat on the bus with a frightened young man with special needs, who 
            had violently objected to his exam earlier in the day.

            Dressing up and participating in a play performed by the youngsters.

            Treating the broken arm of your own sponsor child, late on a Saturday night.

            Joining a group of teenage girls in their effort to cut the grass — with machetes.

            Embracing a 5 year-old — his forehead smudged after having received his Ash 
            Wednesday blessing from you — who, while still on the altar, asks you to recheck 
            his ear infection.

In writing about our connectedness to one another, Richard Rohr recognizes “the presence of the divine in literally ‘every thing’ and ‘every one’.”  Further, he describes the mysterious relationship between God and man by stating that “God is a mirror big enough to receive everything, and every single part of you,” . *  

We are also mirrors to those around us.  If our lives truly mirror our Creator to one another, we should put no limits on the light that shines among us.

There is a deep and peaceful beauty in living, working and being in a community where one does medical volunteering.  The beauty is that the blurring of the lines that separate our roles, in fact, arises from the softening of human relationships, and from the glare of the reflection of the Infinite.

* The Universal Christ, p.18,  p.228





Rolling With the Panchos


How many uses could I think of for this object that I am now carrying to the trash?

One – maybe two?
           
-       A broken coffee pot could become a flower planter.
-       An unused calling card could serve as a bookmark.
-       Wouldn’t this orange juice can make a useful pencil holder?

Here at NPH-Honduras, Pancho * wins the award for the most creative uses for a single, discarded roller skate.  He has converted it into:

-       A personal land surfboard
-       A rolling stool
-       A transporter for heavy books
-       A marketable, extreme experience – for which friends will offer cookies and candies in order to try.

Pancho shows us that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.  He also reminds us that when our eyes see few possibilities, God’s plan for us may be quite the surprise.




*    Name changed

Javier’s Eyes

The quiet wonder in Javier’s * gaze revealed that he was looking at something he had never seen before.


Across his face – held close to the back window of the bus – coursed the shadows of telephone poles and billboards.  Cars, buses and taxis were magnets to his eyes as they passed.  Silent, but curious, Javier obviously found newness and pleasure in those things that many of us have learned to ignore.

The eleven-year-old was journeying from the place that had housed him for two years in San Pedro Sula, Honduras to his new home at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH).  The youngest of seventeen boys with disabilities, Javier and his peers were soon to join the NPH community.


The morning had seen a juxtaposition of well-laid plans with operational chaos, of Yankee ingenuity with Honduran practicality, of laughter with tears.  Eventually, our caravan of bus, truck (loaded with mattresses and cribs) and four ambulances would wind its way along mountainous terrain to its destination at El Rancho Santa Fe.  The new arrivals – young men from ages 11 to 22 – would quickly be fed, given new clothing, evaluated by medical personnel and situated for the night.  

Welcoming smiles and strings of colorful decorations lined the newcomers’ paths into their new home.  Javier caught sight of his name – scribbled in magic marker – on a yellow balloon.  For this new member of the family, his eyes beheld more than just a bright and attractive object.  

They witnessed what respect for the human dignity that dwells in each of us can look like.





*  Name changed


**  The Stavinohas have returned to NPH Honduras, and continue their connection to Mission Doctors Association.  They will remain through the Spring of 2019.

Corn – egie Hall *


Today, Susan studied at the apron of the Master.
After we finished early in the NPH clinic, she decided to offer assistance at the tortilla hut.    Like most others – a building of brick and tile, located near the center of the Ranch – the tortilla hut stands out only by its adjacent, open-air, wood-fired, smoke-belching black cauldron……   and by its delicious and enticing fragrance.
Doña Gloria directs the daily orchestration of stoking the fire, boiling the thick, yellow maize, adding the lye, and stirring with her squat wooden baton until the kernels are softened to her exacting standard. 
The second movement brings large amounts of the boiled concoction through a funnel/grinder apparatus, to produce the malleable, doughy masa, which finds itself formed into uniform, flat discs by the hand-cranked “tortillero”.
At the large, black stovetop, Doña Gloria performs her grand finale of cooking the tortillas to a spottily-browned, slightly crisp perfection.  Her spatula effortlessly flips and rearranges the notes on her page, while towers of finished product rise to her right.  Her accompanist shuttles the aromatic, freshly-made tortillas to a large, draped washbasin, used to transport the precious contents to the insulated termos, and then on to the hogars for lunch.  Spectators are graced with samples that – with a pinch of salt in the smoky tortilla air – complete the experience of ecstasy.
While the floor of her chamber is swept, and the instruments are cleaned for another day’s performance, Doña Gloria sits and wipes her damp brow.  With the face of someone much younger than her 69 years, her smile reveals a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.  A stout and solid woman, her dimensions trend toward those of her perfectly-round works of art.  Hands grown strong and tough through years of hard work smooth back feathery gray hair beneath a well-worn baseball cap.  Work is finished until starting up again before tomorrow’s dawn.
 Doña Gloria makes 2,000 tortillas daily for all those who live and work at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos.  Conservatively estimating that one half million tortillas kiss her griddle every year, in her 50-year career, Doña Gloria would have produced enough tortillas that if placed end-to-end, would form a ribbon of corn around the circumference of Dallas, Texas…….  68 times.
 If tomorrow morning, one is fortunate enough to be cutting across the Ranch, he should be prepared to experience a whiff of the work of a virtuoso.





*The Stavinohas have now temporarily returned to the US.  Appearing in Neighbors Far Away will be essays from their previous visits to NPH Honduras.