Medical mission to Honduras highlights common humanity, brings life-altering surgery

Medical mission to Honduras

An annual medical mission to Honduras was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic made travel difficult. This year, the mission resumed with an expanded team bringing life-altering surgery to people who need it most.

Eight years ago, a small group of staff from Mayo Clinic in Arizona began making annual visits to rural Honduras to provide surgical services for people with little access to health care. That yearly mission was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic made travel difficult, but the medical needs of the people of Honduras continued to grow.

In February, when travel restrictions were eased and it became safer to travel, the medical mission was resumed with an expanded team from Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Rochester and Florida.

The mission is in keeping with Mayo Clinic's spirit of community and caring for those most in need, according to Alyssa Chapital, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Clinical Practice Committee at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and executive sponsor of the Global Mayo Employee Resource Group in Arizona.

Dr. Chapital has been part of the mission to Honduras for several years. She says the mission also has rewards for the staff who participate. It broadens their clinical experience, helps foster a sense of collective responsibility, and prevents burnout, she says.

Hollie Thornton, a nurse in Surgical Services, has been part of the mission from the start, handling logistics for the team. The News Center team caught up with her to learn more about the purpose and inspiration for the trip.

What was the purpose of the mission?

The purpose of the mission is to augment the local surgical teams in Honduras by providing specialty care to an underserved rural population. We assist with clearing the backlog of surgical patients that always exists there but has been compounded by the pandemic. We also share our skills and knowledge with the local team while meeting the patients' surgical needs.

What inspired this work?

We saw a need and felt compelled to act on it. Despite our distance across the globe, we all share a common humanity. There are thousands of patients on their patient list waiting for a life-changing surgery, and for a few, a life-saving surgery. These patients are hoping to have surgery to walk again, dress themselves, live without pain, work in their communities, and return to their previous levels of activity. To put it in perspective, our brigade went in February, and an ENT-qualified surgeon won't be back in the region until August. 

Why Honduras and why now?

Honduras has a high burden of untreated surgical diseases that includes untreated orthopedic traumatic injuries, joint infections after surgical treatment at public hospitals, and resectable cancers.

We have had a partnership with this location since 2014, but we were unable to travel for this work due to COVID-19 since 2020. During that time, the surgical patient list grew. Now that we have mitigation strategies for COVID-19 and have learned to travel and work more safely within the backdrop of the pandemic, it seemed like the right time to go again.

Tell us about the team involved?

This was our first enterprise-wide team with surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, nurses, scrub technicians and general volunteers from Arizona, Florida and Minnesota. We were able to bring residents and medical students in training at Mayo and provide them with invaluable clinical and cultural learning experiences that they might never have in their rotations here at home. For this brigade, our surgical specialties included general surgery, orthopedics and ENT.

What kind of impact did the team have?  

By the numbers, we did 56 surgeries and 90 patient evaluations during the five working days we were there. But the impact was far beyond that for these patients who were finally able to get their surgery and for us as visiting clinicians. For the patients, it provided hope for a better future and a return to a more functional state where they can engage with and provide for their families and communities. While it can be discouraging to see how much work is left to be done, we must recall the wise words of Dr. Seuss, "To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world." For those patients we were able to care for, it changed their world.

Can you share a couple of the most memorable moments?

It is so hard to single individual moments out of the entire experience. We all had different significant moments as we interacted with patients differently based on our roles. As a phase 1 PACU nurse, I saw patients time after time express their incredible joy and appreciation for finally being able to have surgery to treat their disease, despite just coming out of surgery and being in pain.

We had an ENT patient our surgeon had seen in clinic who was added on our last day because he thought the patient would likely die if they had to wait until August to have their surgery when the next ENT brigade was coming. We also had a patient who talked about his many positive experiences living in Honduras, was so thankful for his surgery, and told his nurse that he "hoped we lived a long time so we could take care of many more people."

Medical mission in Honduras

What will you bring back with you to your work at Mayo?

We bring back to Mayo an understanding that the world is a smaller place than we may think.  Most people are just trying to get through the day and through life like we are, valuing health and family. While geographically and culturally, we may be different, our common humanity makes us all very much alike. It challenges us to reflect on our own lives and circumstances.

These trips have taught me that you can find joy and gratefulness even amid difficult circumstances. Also, that simplicity is underrated and that we often don't value our resources as much as we should. It further bonds our Mayo team and builds lasting relationships abroad. It helps restore our sense of purpose and passion within our careers.