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Giving back in Central America

Medical mission to aid Honduras' impoverished headed by VIN member


July 24, 2009
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


The cocks start crowing at 4:15 a.m., when Houston-based feline specialist Dr. Bill Folger and 21 other volunteers rise from old cots and bunk beds and start packing medical supplies into bags.

A village priest’s family cooks the troop a breakfast of refried beans and eggs, sometimes pancakes, and brews black coffee from beans freshly harvested.

Then, before heading out over the hillside, everyone gathers for a short prayer.

The mission group makes the 1,200-mile trek once yearly from Texas to the secluded mountain villages of Honduras’ El Paraiso to bring much-needed dental, medical and veterinary care to the area. The volunteers ended their six-day journey to eight villages last month, marking the mission’s 11th annual year.

The hours are long, accommodations are anything but lavish and getting the group from the United States to Central America, with bags and supplies in tow, can be a logistical nightmare.

What draws Folger, the group’s organizer, and others to Honduras is the people’s grateful nature and their dire need for medical assistance. The trip is almost always wrought with roadblocks like lost luggage, customs holdups and even danger (one volunteer was robbed outside the Tegucigalpa airport). But once on site, the volunteers are off and running, supported by a backbone of about 10 professionals — all of whom Folger recruited — who do this year after year.

“A lot of people go on medical mission trips and it’s not their cup of tea. It has to be in your blood to do this,” says Folger, a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) consultant in the Feline Medicine folder. “For me, this is kind of a contract thing between me and God. It’s a way for me to serve, privately. These people would absolutely never see a medical doctor or a veterinarian if we weren’t there."

Hondurans might be the most impoverished people in Central America, experts say, and the mountainous region of El Paraiso reinforces that characterization. Most of the dogs and cats are skin and bones, living on a diet of beans and rice apart from anything else they can scrounge. Virtually everything that moves has fleas, ticks and internal parasites, and in some areas, cuterebra infestation is rampant.

Patients will wait four hours to see one of the medical volunteers, and Folger says no one ever complains. “They’re always so gracious and sweet to us,” he says. “They’re mostly grateful for some medical person to listen to them.”

Low in supplies, human doctors shared lidocaine and eye ointment with veterinarians. And this year, with a storm fast approaching, the large-animal team castrated horses by flashlight.

“When you’re in the country, there are just things that you do there that you wouldn’t do in the U.S.,” Folger says.

Also unlike the United States is the direct relationship between the health of humans and the health of their animals. Large-animal practitioner and volunteer Dr. Jimmy Alexander, of Mississippi, views his job as trying to improve the health of people by educating them on husbandry practices, deworming and how to control the transmission of diseases and vectors.

“They all realize that without these animals, they can’t make a living. It’s their means of transportation and their power source,” says Alexander, who’s been at Folger’s side since the group started in 1998. “Once they see that the ox does better and the horses are not crippled and sick, they see the benefits of parasite and vector control and that medical care goes from a secondary deal to a priority in their minds.

In my mind, it’s the ultimate for a veterinarian. The quality of their lives improves because of what we do with the animals.”

It also gets better with the aid of human medical professionals, who during this past weeklong trip treated nearly 700 patients while a dentist extracted 500 teeth. Folger and his crew toted 2,000 toothbrushes to the area, along with $8,000 in veterinary supplies, mostly donated by industry, and $20,000 in human medicines and equipment.

“In general, in the villages we go to, there may be 30 houses and only one car,” Folger says. “Some don’t have electricity or running water. They’ve never seen a toothbrush.”

While volunteers pay roughly $1,000 to get them on-site, grants and benefactors, which mainly include Folger’s extended family, foot the bill for the human medical provisions.

What's comforting is knowing that the money directly affects the lives of so many, Folger says, recalling how the volunteers once treated a 32-year-old Honduran woman with double pneumonia and 12 children.

“The kids had lice so bad their hair was falling out, and it had been so long since they had eaten meat that their hair was turning orange. These kids were starving. We had brought several hundred pounds of beans and rice and we parceled them out, but we found a way to sneak extra food for this family. What got me was the way the children held on to this food like their lives depended on it.

The doctor who examined the mother predicted she would die before the mission group's return the following year, but then Folger got word that she had survived and her children appeared in better condition.

“I think that kind of symbolized for me what we do here.”

Alexander adds: “It’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction that I get, that I actually did something worthwhile. For that week, I’m not trying to make a living, I’m just trying to help some folks.”

Now Alexander is trying to help the other 51 weeks of the year, with a project he’s heading to build much-needed tanks to supply clean, chlorinated water to the region's villages. Alexander hires the general contractor and makes sure the village, not the local church or state, owns the tank and the site it sits on. Costs can run upward of $8,000, due to rising concrete prices and a rugged terrain that calls for using metal lines.

While the first water tank took seven years to complete, the second took just three. Alexander hopes a third tank will be finished within the next two years.

By then, the two veterinarians most likely will be continuing their volunteer work. Folger is already recruiting next year’s team, ordering supplies and arranging travel logistics. He and Alexander promise only to stop when one of the two dies. And even then, the team must return in memory of the lost member.

“I think we get more out of it than the Hondurans do,” Alexander says. “The animals and their health get better, but we come away with more of a warm, fuzzy feeling. It seems that everybody benefits.”



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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