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Stella Erbes Reflects on Honduras Medical Mission
“All I can say is that I began to sweat the second I stepped off the plane in Honduras and I didn’t stop sweating until I stepped off the plane back in Los Angeles.” So recalled my former student Ghavinn Crutcher (B ’04, SC) of his visit to Honduras when I told him that I would lead a team of Pepperdine students there. His words resonated with me during my time in Honduras, where the heat and humidity were indescribable. We encountered scarce air conditioning, undeveloped roads, and unclean air reeking of cattle. As newcomers to the country we felt shocked and trapped by the heat and the conditions, but for the people we went there to serve, this was a taste of everyday life.
On May 5, 2007, seven Pepperdine students and I began our journey to Honduras to practice our Spanish skills and serve in hospitals, medical clinics, and schools. I, Dr. Stella Erbes, can typically be found teaching education course at Seaver College, but for that month I was asked to lead the Honduras Medical Mission Team. Dr. Philip Thomason, who mentored me as an undergraduate Spanish major at Pepperdine, referred me for this position because of my fluency in Spanish, previous experience teaching the language, and my heart for missionary work. The Honduras Medical Mission Program attracts pre-med students from Seaver College (and the former pre-med major in me) who are interested in serving others by using their Spanish skills and medical knowledge.
Following a seven-hour flight to Central America, students Carolina Botero, Heather Miller, Justin Hall, Kevin Howard, Kevin Lammert, Matt Osborne, Michaela Carrerra, and I experienced four weeks of adventure. We spent the first week in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. At first glance, the capital seemed more modern than any of us had imagined. The city is filled with many American fast-food restaurants and the two local malls are very similar to those that we have at home. Though the city is overcrowded and the air quality is poor, a day trip to the small outlying towns helped us uncover the beautiful forests and charm of Honduras.
During this first week, all participants of the program stayed in the dorms and apartments at Baxter Institute, a seminary supported by many Churches of Christ from the United States. I taught an intense Spanish course there for six hours each day. Students learned Spanish medical terms, became familiar with the Honduras medical system, toured public and private hospitals, learned about the people and culture, and engaged in activities to help improve their language skills. Touring the city's hospitals impacted us deeply. The public hospitals are extremely overcrowded, lacking enough beds for all the patients. Signs posted to doors indicated that there would be no more surgeries because the hospital had run out of anesthesia. Doctors from the surgical unit of one public hospital said that many of the patients are treated because of violence; one surgeon showed us a graphic picture a patient he saved by removing a machete from the man's brain. Meanwhile, we learned that the private hospitals with state-of-the art equipment and pristine rooms remain empty because the majority of Hondurans cannot afford to pay independently for such services.
The next week we drove about three hours northeast to a town called Catacamas. It was burning season for the farmers so the air was filled with smoke, ash, and the smell of farm animals. Ten of us, including a driver and a guide, piled into an old Range Rover with all of our gear. With no air conditioning in our vehicle we rolled down the windows, covered our mouths with T-shirts, and peeled our sweaty legs away from the hot car seats when we stopped for breaks. In Catacamas we stayed with Honduran families who graciously opened their homes to us. Our days began as early as 7 a.m. when we rotated through a series of medical rounds. The medical clinics in Catacamas offer free high-quality medical services for those in need, including the town's pregnant women, some as young as 13. We observed doctors at the Predisan Medical Clinic, served the community at the public health center, and witnessed surgeries and births at the public hospital in Juticalpa.
Our third week was the most challenging, like an episode of Survivor. We drove on rough, unpaved roads for two hours up to the mountains of Catacamas. There we stayed in primitive conditions and traveled one hour each morning to a remote one-room schoolhouse perched on a mountaintop. Between 50 and 85 students aged 5-14 gathered there for school. Our student group wrote and performed a short skit about the importance of brushing one's teeth, and followed it with an upbeat dance using toothbrushes and dental floss. Afterwards, we administered fluoride treatments to all the students and then broke up into different stations to weigh and measure each student, check their hair for lice, inspect their mouths for cavities, and examine their bodies for external abnormalities or infections. It was devastating to see the very poor conditions in which these students lived and the lack of medical attention from which they suffered. Many had mouths full of black holes from cavities; some endured infections on their bare, dirty feet or herpes on their backs and abdomens. Despite all this our visit brought smiles to their faces and we pray that it made a difference to them in some small way.
In our final week, the group flew to a tiny island north of Honduras called Roatan. The ocean there is crystal clear, the people warm and friendly, and the seafood outstanding. We spent this time enjoying the beautiful island, relaxing after a rigorous three weeks, and reflecting upon our service in Honduras. We returned home to the United States with an indescribable appreciation for far more than we had imagined. Our trip gave us a new appreciation for things like access to quality medical services, maintained sewage systems, the weather in southern California, paved roads, clean water, and the vast selection of food in our grocery stores. God stretched us, blessed us, and opened our eyes and our hearts to help us appreciate so much that we easily take for granted each day.