|The doctor is in, for a day, at the local children's home|
I’ve known for a while now that accessing medical care was a challenge for the majority of Hondurans who have to rely on the public system. But it wasn’t until I put in a couple of days as an ad-hoc translator for a U.S. doctor in the villages this week that I fully understood that medical care is as good as non-existent for a whole lot of people.
The doctor was part of a faith-based group out of Illinois and Tennessee who were here to build fuel-efficient stoves in three villages around Copan. She hadn’t planned on seeing patients, but word got out fast that there was a doctor among the group and she graciously agreed to see a few people.
And they jumped at the chance. On Monday and Tuesday we were in Guarumal, Cabanas, a village of 15 families, and at least nine of those families were in the lineup within 10 minutes of the doctor pulling up a chair on the patio outside a resident’s house. I suspect the other six families would have been there, too, if they’d heard the news that an impromptu clinic was on.
They arrived with all the problems that any family bumps into in the course of a life: fevered little children sick with a seasonal virus; bad coughs; yeast infections; stomach pain; acid reflux; foot fungus; bad teeth; lumps and bumps and itchy rashes that they’d had for years in some cases.
But unlike a typical North American family, these ones rarely got care for their illnesses and injuries. Even if they were able to find the $5 fee to see the doctor at the public clinic, the nearest clinic was a long, hard 10 or 15 miles away and many of them didn’t have transport. Nor did they have money for any necessary lab tests to confirm what ailed them, or for medications. Not that they could count on the scarce public health clinics in this area to even be open when they showed up, or have the medications they needed.
The pharmacies in Honduras are loaded with all the modern medications, and virtually all are available without a prescription. But until a doctor gives you a diagnosis and the name of a drug that might help, none of that means a thing. I wouldn’t like to think how many people end up using the wrong medication for an ailment, simply because they don’t know which one to ask for.
So while the people in Guarumal were grateful that the visiting doctor sometimes pulled a free bottle of painkillers or antibiotics out of her magic bag, they were equally appreciative just to have her write down the name of the medication they needed. Money is one hurdle, but knowing what drug to buy is an additional barrier.
The good doctor let me lure her to the Angelitos Felices foster home as well, where 25 or so kids pass their days in unsanitary, damp conditions in which they share towels, clothes, bedding, shoes and therefore all the diseases and infections that spread that way. I’d cautioned her that the kids might be shy about being examined, but in fact most of them really seemed to like the personal attention, not to mention the chance to get a band-aid (or two or three) on their many cuts and scrapes.
I came home with a list of suggested medications for all the kids with ailments, with an asterisk by the ones who need treatment most urgently. That included a two-year-old and a four-year-old who both have severe staph infections on their scalps, a nine-year-old suffering from a monstrous tooth ache from the worst of his many cavities, and a 14-year-old with a urinary tract infection. (Wish I could have done something for the asthmatic little boy we met in Guarumal, who was so obviously struggling for every breath.)
The doctor says just about every child in Angelitos has a chronic fungal infection on their feet, and some have it on their faces and scalps. So I bought a big tube of anti-fungal cream at the pharmacy this morning and am going back for two more when the next shipment arrives from San Pedro next week. Clearing the fungus out of that place sounds like an impossible task, but even a month or two without cracked, achy feet should be a relief for those kids.
Spare a thought for them next time you’re grumbling about the wait at the walk-in clinic or the lineup at the pharmacy. The people here would be ecstatic if that was as big as the problems got.