Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From the mountains to the sick bed

My work in La Esperanza started slow, but that was expected. Like most volunteers, I spent the first couple weeks going into my office and basically following around the Engineer, and sometimes the woman from the Environmental Office, as they went about their daily work. I didn’t work much, usually 9-12 in the morning. A lot of the time was spent waiting for them to finish something so we could leave, but I did learn some things. I was able to go out to several of the aldeas (small towns, usually just a collection of houses near each other) of the municipality and see the landscape and meet the people.

I went out with the engineer to inspect work being done to build a water system. I helped him measure and map a road that severely needs to be repaved.

I also learned the laws about cutting down trees in the country. Basically, you can go into the municipalidad and ask for permission to cut down three trees. Now these are not trees on public land, these are trees on your own private property, and you can only cut three. Not only that, but the wood has to be used within the municipalidad, usually to construct a house. Pretty strict, huh? And you have to plant 3 trees for every one you cut. It’s pretty easy to get the permission (although you do have to jump through a lot of hoops getting signatures of several people) but the municipalidad has a limited number they can give out, and once those are gone, you have to appeal higher to get permission. My job in all of this was teaching the woman from the UMA (Environmental) Office how to use their 10 year old GPS so that she could mark the trees and confirm that the people actually cut down what they said they were going to cut down.

That was basically the extent of my work until last week, when I started to actually do the work I was trained for. Two weeks ago, I went out to the aldea of Llano Grande with the engineer to inspect the fuente de agua for a water system that the mayor was going to help fund. We found out that their survey of the system had been done several years ago and lacked some vital information about accessories. Thus, they needed a new survey, which I started last Tuesday. Now, surveying is a pretty basic exercise, although it can be grueling work. Basically, I go up the mountain with about 4 guys from the community to help me and I survey the topography from the fuente to the tanque (what it sounds like, the water tank) and finally to all the houses. This means hiking up and down mountains all day long for several days. Luckily, the guys helping me do most of the heavy work. They chop at the plants with machetes to clear the path and they carry most of the equipment. But they are all glad to do it because I’m doing the survey for free (saving the community thousands of lempiras) and helping to bring ‘clean, potable’ drinking water to their houses. The guys who help out rotate each day, meaning I have to train new people every day to do what I need them to do, which can be challenging at times. The best part for me is that the community also provides me with lunch while I’m out working, which most of the time comes down the hill randomly at around 11 in the hands of someone from the community. I have no idea how they know where we will be at lunch time, since cell phone coverage is spotty that far out, but somehow it always makes it. In addition to lunch, sometimes I’m offered a cup of coffee at someone’s house at the end of the day before I get driven back to the city.
I was thoroughly worn out by time we got to the tank site on the third day, but I was anxious to finish as soon as possible so I agreed to work Saturday so that I could try to be done before Wednesday when Honduras plays its first World Cup game at 5 am. I had to take a break Sunday, and then Monday my ride out to the community never showed up. That meant I had a nice relaxing day showing a friend of ours around the town, but it meant that I would have to work after the game on Wednesday….

Disaster struck early Tuesday morning. I woke at around midnight with diarrhea. Nothing to worry about, as it’s relatively common in a volunteer’s life. I went back to bed, and woke maybe an hour later with more diarrhea. I was starting to get worried, but surely it would pass by morning as it always had before. Finally I knew it was serious when I threw up all my food around 2. Nicki was worried and called the Peace Corps doctor. There wasn’t much they could do at 2 in the morning (there aren’t 24 hour emergency rooms on every street corner in Honduras), but she said to try to stay hydrated, take some Pepto Bismol and call again if there was more vomit. I followed the instructions, but the diarrhea continued every half hour or so. And at around 5:30, the vomiting returned. We called the PCMO again, and were able to get a hold of the Peace Corps approved clinic in town that theoretically is open 24 hours. The guy on the phone said he would call the doctor and have him come in by the time we got there.

This being Honduras, we didn’t quite believe that line, but got there anyway by 6 am. It took the doctor another half hour or so to show up. He performed the usual checkup: weight, blood pressure, listening to my heart, etc. He said I seemed to be reasonably hydrated, but wanted to give me an IV anyway. The next 7 hours or so were spent lying in a bed with IV slowly chilling my arm. After a brief panic about basically being trapped there by the IV, I was able to calm down and doze a little. Nicki sat dutifully by my side the whole time. She had brought me a book, so when I woke up, I had some entertainment. She, however, had none. There was a TV in the waiting room with the World Cup on. There wasn’t one in my room. We could hear goals being scored, but had no idea who was playing.

Once the first IV bag was gone, the nurse came in to take a blood sample, and gave me two film canisters for urine and stool samples, plus a wooden tongue depressor. Now it’s possible some of you have given stool samples before, but I doubt you’ve ever done it with a film canister, and diarrhea. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed it, but with the help of the tongue depressor and a lot of luck I managed to do it. Then it was back to bed for another 4 hours.

When the IV liquid finally ran out, the nurse took it out, but said the doctor was at lunch so I would have to wait until he got back for my prescriptions and to have the needle removed from my hand. I don’t know why she couldn’t take out the needle, but it was 1 o’clock, so I said ok, and proceeded to wait….and wait. At 2, the doctor returned. After 3 or 4 times of asking me if I was ready to leave and doing nothing, he then went to take care of a more pressing problem, a patient with some sort of foot wound. Another hour went by, and finally, I was called into his office. I was given the test results. I had a pretty bad intestinal, bacterial infection. He gave me 4 prescriptions, told me to come back at 9 the next day…and then had a nurse remove the needle!

Needless to say, my topographic study was put on hold for the week, although I was just as exhausted from sitting at the clinic all day long. Now I’m home, both excited and dreading waking up at 5 to watch the soccer game before trudging back up to the clinic at 9. But hey, we’re lucky, at least we have a clinic in our town. We don’t have to take a 3 hour bus ride to see a doctor like some of our friends :-/

**These observations and events are in no way a reflection of poor health care provision on the part of the Peace Corps.

PS Honduras perdiĆ³ a Chile 0-1 en el partido


  1. They should have had you bring Lamotal (sp) with you. It used to be a perscription, now it is over the counter. Never travel without it.

  2. I have just caughtup with your last 5 postings...facinating. I enjoy reading about your experiences and impressions. Although I have to admit (coming from an old spoiled N. American) its probably a good thing you guys are young and resillient. Nolan I hope your feeling better! Your apartment/house looks quite nice. Nicki, very interesting comments on the life of Honduran woman. Makes one realize just how much we have and how much we waste.. Love to you both from Deb and Jim