Most people who take a week off from work will spend it traveling, seeing friends and family, or just relaxing. That’s what vacations are for, right? Two members of the Box Butte General Hospital Surgery Department did use their vacation to travel to Honduras. But in their case it was to volunteer as part of a surgical group sponsored by the Solanus Medical Mission (SMM), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing medical care to those who cannot afford it in Comayagua, Honduras.
Nurse Anesthetist Chuck Frisch, CRNA, DNP and Surgical Nurse Sarah Troester, RN, BSN were part of a 24 member team of volunteers who spent the week of April 21-28 performing 72 surgical procedures on Hondurans who met the SMM income guidelines to qualify for free surgeries (less than $100 a month in income). “It was an amazing experience,” said Sarah, first-time volunteer for the mission. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it was fantastic.” Her compatriot on the other hand is a veteran: “This is the third trip I’ve volunteered for, and I plan to do it again next year,” Chuck said. “It’s something that I enjoy doing.”
The team was comprised of three surgeons (one orthopedic surgeon, one GYN surgeon, and one general surgeon), with the rest the support staff they needed to do the procedures. “Each surgical team averaged five to six surgeries a day,” Sarah said. “They ranged from doing knee scopes, hysterectomies, manipulation of frozen joints, hernia repairs… just about anything that could be done with the surgeons we had on hand.”
The surgeries were conducted at St. Joseph Benedict Medical Center in Comayagua. “It is a very nice facility,” Sarah said. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was very clean and the local staff there was fantastic. They worked with us very well. There were some communication issues, but nothing that hindered us too much. I do know some Spanish, but my accent must have been terrible because patients would look at me and tilt their heads, like… What? The interpreters would help me out with communicating with the patients. ”
When the team left for Honduras, they had well over 20 duffel bags crammed with medical supplies and equipment. “We took as much as we could with us, since we knew medical facilities in Central America are limited in what they can supply for such missions,” Chuck said. “I took a bunch of expired anesthesia supplies donated by BBGH, for example.” Using expired medical supplies is common in Honduras. “Expired supplies are still safely useable if unopened or still sealed,” Chuck said. “They just don’t meet our medical standards here in the U.S.”
As a matter of fact, a lot of best practices used in the United States go out the window in poorer countries. “They have a limited number of supplies,” Sarah said, “which means certain supplies we are required to use once and throw away here in the U.S. gets sterilized and used again down in Honduras. We sterilized the heck out of items the hospital didn’t have enough of to do all the procedures, such as pieces of mesh we use for hernias. We would cut the mesh into smaller pieces in a sterile fashion and then re-sterilize the rest for a future case. They would re-sterilize laryngeal masks (LMAs) which is a device used to secure an airway for general anesthesia that we consider one time use here in the United States. Other items that we’d discard if contaminated here in the United States by dropping on the floor (such as a sterile drape or sterile gown), we would re-sterilize and use for a later case in Honduras. “
The people receiving the help and their families were very thankful. “It was amazing,” Sarah said. “These are people who have waited a long time to get help in alleviating a medical condition, often ones that cause pain.” She added that she was also struck by the differences in health care. “It’s so different down there than what we’re used to here in the States,” she continued. “While the hospital there does have four operating rooms, they don’t have any surgeons to use them. The hospital has primary care physicians who more or less triage which patients need to be on the list to be treated when missions such as ours arrive. Also I found that many government hospitals require the patient to purchase the medical supplies they need for treatment before they are admitted into the hospital to receive the care or procedure required. It’s just strange.”
Both said St. Joseph’s was a well-run hospital. “While most of the equipment was at least a generation old or more compared to what we use here at BBGH (e.g. his anesthesia machine was at least 20-30 years old, and suction equipment Sarah used at least 30 years old), the hospital was very clean, as were the operating rooms,” Chuck said. But still there were some jarring moments. “At one point, a surgeon said to turn up the air conditioner because it was too hot,” Sarah recalled. “I’m thinking … An air conditioner in an operating room blowing onto the sterile field!? But that’s just the way it is in a poorer country.”
When asked what they took away from the experience, Sarah commented, “For one thing, I realized how very, very lucky we are to live in the United States. We’re truly blessed here. Another thing was how truly thankful the patients and the families were for being treated. I mean really thankful. They never complained about how long they suffered before the procedure, the long waits waiting to have surgery, or anything like that. They were just so thankful.” Chuck concurred. “People who very much need help appreciate the care these missions provide. That’s why it’s so satisfying for all of us who go on these missions.”
Both said they plan to volunteer again in the future.
Box Butte General Hospital is an equal opportunity provider and employer.