Students give aid to the poor, get enduring lesson

By Dan Egan Milwaukee Journal (KRT) Just a day after the end of their midterms, Marquette University students Stephanie Merlo and Ana Sanchez found themselves in the pediatric ward of a government-run hospital in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. It was Saturday night _ party time for their buddies back home. But for them, it was time to step in and help the abandoned 3-month-old, who had been left alone for about two hours because the hospital was so short-staffed. The students removed the child’s filthy diaper and fashioned a new one from an old shirt. Then they fed the baby, drop by drop, with a syringe. They gave her a name, Angela, and they cuddled her. “She just wanted to be held,” Merlo said. “It was simple. Anybody could have done it.” While thousands of college students flocked south in recent weeks to bake themselves at favorite beaches, Merlo and Sanchez were among a group of about 20 Marquette students who headed to Central America, spending their spring break among some of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest people. They brought with them about $300,000 worth of donated antibiotics and other medicines and supplies, as well as five physicians, a pharmacist and a nurse practitioner. The student-organized medical brigade spent most of the week in the dusty Honduran mountains, giving free medical care to people too poor to pay for a ride to a clinic in the city, let alone a doctor bill. Most students had little if any clinical training. All they had was enthusiasm and a yearning to do something meaningful. Anybody could have done it. A day after touching down on a runway bordered by a mountain on one end and a cliff on the other _ so treacherously tight for a lumbering 757 that even some airline pilots confess to being scared in the cockpit _ Suzanne Tack was still trying to grasp her new surroundings. After all, there aren’t shoeless, homeless kids roaming the streets of Tack’s hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis. There aren’t scruffy men standing guard with shotguns outside the Pizza Hut. Tack hadn’t known what to expect at the end of a five-hour plane trip from Chicago, but it wasn’t this. The thing that struck her most were the huts in the hills the students passed on their bus trip to a small town outside the capital where they spent most of the week. Some looked more like clubhouses built by school kids than a place a family would call home. Bony cows roamed the dusty yards. Laundry was left to dry on barbed-wire fences in the brutally hot breeze. “An eye-opener,” is how Tack, a dental hygiene undergraduate, described her first day in the Third World. “I anticipated rundown houses, but I did not anticipate just shacks on hillsides.” Mark England had left the United States once before. He went to Canada. To go fishing. “Unreal,” was the only word the northern Wisconsin native could think of to describe the living conditions. Like the rest of the students on the trip, England had to hustle to make it happen. This was not a university-driven expedition. The students came up with the idea, the money and the medicines on their own. England himself coaxed a total of $500 from two car dealerships and a grocery store in his hometown of Neillsville, Wis. At the last minute, the students received some funds from their respective university departments, and all the donated money was pooled. They each ultimately ended up paying about $200 of their own money to make it happen. The trip was organized by junior Jeff Bodle, who had been on a similar expedition with an Indiana University group last spring. The Indianapolis native posted fliers advertising the trip and created an application form. About 60 people applied for the 20 open spots. Bodle then recruited three doctors from his hometown to join the group. Milwaukee internist Chris Drayna heard about the expedition in January and added his name. He coached the kids on how to get more donations of medicine from physicians around Milwaukee. The students were so successful they needed to procure dozens of donated suitcases to carry all the medicine south. Finally, the group was joined by Jose Sampra in Honduras, a 31-year-old emergency room physician who works in his native Tegucigalpa and who is friends with one of the Indianapolis physicians. Sampra leaned against a barbed-wire fence post and giggled as the sunburned Americans tumbled out of their rented four-wheel drive trucks with black tinted windows. It was their third day in the country, and the pink-skinned kids in their white running shoes and baggy shorts and tank tops had just bounced a half-hour up a rutted road to this village of huts and horses and lots of smiling people with missing teeth. “Look at them,” Sampra said as hundreds of villagers clustered and gawked. “It’s as if Martians had landed in the U.S.” Indeed, foreign visits are a rarity in this little town perched 3,000 feet above a green valley floor in southern Honduras, not far from the Nicaraguan border. The scenery is Aspen-caliber, but there are no ski lifts here, no businesses. There aren’t even toilets. “Who is going to come here? Who?” asked Sampra. “Not even most Hondurans come to places like this.” It would be hard to find a better place to do charity work in the Western Hemisphere. Honduras already ranked among the world’s poorest nations before Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country in 1998. The October storm destroyed entire villages and highway systems and, by some estimates, set modernization of the country back two decades. Today, unemployment runs higher than 60 percent and the average annual salary is a little more than $1,000. This town, called El Coyolito, has about 1,000 residents scattered on a mountainside so steep that in places you could fall off. Most scrape a living off the valley floor below, working in the sugarcane fields for maybe $5 a day. If residents get sick here, they usually just hope they will get better on their own. Some don’t even bother to do that. They learn to live with the pain _ and die with it. “The worst thing that can happen to a human being is to lose hope,” Sampra says. “You can bet a lot of people here feel hopeless.” Not on this day. The student brigade turned the town’s three-room cinder-block schoolhouse into a medical clinic in a matter of minutes. The doctors set up shop behind little-kid desks in two of the schoolrooms, each flanked by Marquette student interpreters. Other students set up stations to take blood pressure and test adults for diabetes. The truckloads of pills and medical supplies were stashed in the third room of the schoolhouse, which was managed by another physician and a pharmacist. Outside on the playground, the cluster of townspeople was organized into a line and the students registered every single person _ more than 300 on this day. They wrote down names, ages and complaints _ which ranged from hacking coughs and stomach aches to limbs literally rotting from infection. This wasn’t textbook medicine. Doctors were making diagnoses on the fly, seeing about 10 times the number of patients they would on a typical day in the U.S. “You’re just trying to size up what we have in a box to give them, and whether it will make a difference,” said Francis Dillon, a 43-year-old physician from Indianapolis. The little pills we take for granted can make a huge difference in a town like this. They can whip lingering infections and knock out the stomach parasites that can starve even a well-fed child. But they aren’t magic. Dillon saw one 10-year-old girl who had been suffering from a sore throat that made her wince every time she swallowed. He asked how long had she been in pain. The girl’s response: six years. He prescribed antibiotics but told the girl’s mother she would need to take her to Tegucigalpa to have her tonsils removed. He wasn’t sure that would happen. Ultimately, a medical brigade like this is like a strobe flash in the dark. The stomach parasites are going to come back, blood pressure medicine will eventually run out, lice will again infest the children. Suspected cancers will go untreated. And nobody could tell the people when _ or if _ another brigade would arrive in the future. “There’s a recognition that what you do is transient, and it is not going to make a major impact on the health of a population. But there is a real value in seeing what can be accomplished when a larger number of people work together,” Drayna said. Sister Maria Rosa Leggol has seen groups like this before. She has been working with the Honduran sick, homeless and destitute for most of her 76 years. She eagerly houses and feeds groups like the Marquette students at her compound about an hour outside the capital. She says their mission work is important. But it is just as important for them to see the suffering _ like the 4-year-old girl recovering from a gunshot wound at the hospital in the capital. Or the little girl facing a foot amputation. That, she believes, might spur them to a life of greater service. “This is a good sample of our worldwide problems,” said Leggol, a Franciscan nun who took her first religious vows in Milwaukee more than a half-century ago. “Maybe they can begin to appreciate more what they have. Maybe they will use their time better.” Leggol needn’t fret. “We’re probably getting more out of it than (the patients) are,” student Sanchez said after a day of translating for the doctors. “What’s a couple of pills for a lifelong lesson?” That lesson took a hard turn on the last night in Tegucigalpa when Sanchez watched a hospital orderly remove a catheter from a 2-week-old infant who had been having difficulty breathing. “Why are you doing that?” she asked. “That’s what you do when the baby is dead,” the orderly replied. Sanchez didn’t know the infant girl’s name. She didn’t know if the baby had one. “Nobody was there. No parents. No nothing,” she said. The lifeless baby was bundled in a white blanket and placed on a bed where she was left for almost an hour before someone took her away. “For that baby to die by itself,” Sanchez said, tears streaming down her face, “it’s just sad.” She has already made plans to return to Honduras this summer. ___ ‘copy 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Visit JSOnline, the Journal Sentinel’s World Wide Web site, at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.