Mark Brahier, a sophomore studying in the College of Science, reflects on a recent one-week trip to Honduras in today’s Student Spotlight. He highlights not only the healthcare struggles faced by the Honduran community in which he worked, but also the understanding he gained of the importance of sustainable solutions.
“Even though it may seem like it to some, there is not a first world and a third world. There is only one world that we all share.”
-Dr. Paul Farmer, physician and humanitarian
The sun peaked over the mountainside, illuminating a desolate marketplace that would soon bustle with its morning traffic. Bumping down a dirt road in a diesel-guzzling bus, our team of over forty doctors, dentists, medical students, and pharmacists stared out at this familiar scene. I could not help but consider the history leading to the current state of Honduras in which 60% live in poverty and nearly one in four have no access to healthcare.
Over eighty percent of Hondurans survive off of a few dollars a day from jobs in the farming industry and have for hundreds of years; unfortunately, the same mountains, valleys, and tropical climate that make for a beautiful landscape and popular tourist destination hinder the success of agriculture. Accordingly, Hondurans farm primarily for their families and small communities and compete with each other for pennies of profit in overcrowded marketplaces. Though no source is singularly responsible for the poverty of Honduras or any country, geographical barriers leading to dependence on small-scale farming is a significant contributor to the cycle of poverty in much of Central America.
A Healthcare Crisis
Though the contributions of a rugged terrain and agriculture-dependent income to poverty in Honduras are commonly known, the question remains of how this contributes to healthcare problems. A few days of seeing patients in rural Honduran communities provided answers to these questions. The major healthcare issues in Honduras possess a crucial trend: they are all preventable. These problems include:
- High infant mortality due to sub-par birth conditions, infection, and pneumonia
- The “Honduran headache,” cough, and allergies from dehydration and exposure to dust and sun
- Stomach parasites from unclean water
- Hygiene problems leading to the spread of disease, skin conditions, and tooth decay
These health conditions account for a significant portion of rural Hondurans, and while most of these issues are not initially life-threatening, they cause missed days of school and work and ultimately compound into advanced infections without treatment, all of which contribute to the cycle of poverty.
So what can we do? Is a week-long trip to rural Honduras a constructive solution or are we simply shoveling snow in a blizzard? After considering the context of suffering and the unique situations of communities, it becomes clear that while annual trips reduce severe cases and provide temporary solutions, lasting change resides in education both of healthcare providers and community members. We can pull teeth to ease pain for a few months, but if we provide toothbrushes and teach children and adults alike the basics of oral hygiene, we perpetuate that solution. Similarly, community members can be trained on the basics of healthcare, childbirth, and how to avoid the classic “Honduran headache”.
Marking the crossroads of liberation theology, medical anthropology and mission work, Gustavo Gutierrez and Paul Farmer co-authored In the Company of the Poor to discuss the vital role of social justice in medicine. In this work, the two highlight a “preferential option for the poor” – a principle of Catholic social teaching that calls for special consideration for the powerless and impoverished. Vital to this principle and to improvements specifically in the context of healthcare is the creation of sustainable solutions. To draw from Gutierrez and the Prayer of Oscar Romero, an Archbishop of San Salvador assassinated for his support of the Salvadorian people, the developments we Americans attempt to initiate in other countries such as Honduras are not complete solutions. We can “plant the seeds that will one day grow,” and must do so in conjunction with the communities we seek to serve.
Not Just Any Other Day
While winding down the mountainside after a full day of clinic, we paused to reflect on the experience and came to an important realization. It wasn’t the tooth we pulled, the antibiotics we prescribed, or the shot we gave that would matter four weeks from now; it was the words of instruction regarding hygiene and the means of cleaning and suturing a wound that would make a difference. To return to the words of the Oscar Romero Prayer, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” That something may be basic healthcare education. It may be the microfinancing of a small business or the establishment of sustainable energy or water sources. But most importantly, it is a contribution to the understanding that though it may seem like there is a first and third world, there is in reality only one world that we all share.