“It is well packed and contains so many essential medicines,” he says.
Dr. Friesen, a family doctor from Peterborough, Ontario, has been to Honduras on seven medical missions since 2001. That year, he founded the Peterborough Medical Brigades with a local dentist named Dr. Jim McCallum. The medical brigades are part of Dr. McCallum’s organization Friends of Honduran Children.
“After Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, there was an opportunity to help,” Dr. Friesen says. The Honduran government has said that the hurricane set back the country’s progress by 50 years.
“Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas,” says Dr. Friesen. “More than 50 per cent live below the poverty line. Someone told me that if you earn more than $1.50 a day, you’re above the poverty line.”
The Peterborough Medical Brigades send three teams every year. They generally consist of four doctors, two dentists, five nurses, three medical or nursing students and several support workers. In 2006, 54 people served as part of these teams and provided care to an estimated 1,200 people living in rural impoverished areas.
In Honduras they work with a sister organization run by “the Mother Teresa of Central America,” Dr. Friesen says. They try to go to different villages on every trip, often setting up clinics in schools.
In 2006, they were based in Copan, a world heritage site because of its Mayan kingdom ruins. Not far from touristy Copan near the Guatemalan border, there are villages with no electricity or running water. Dr. Friesen and team were able to get out to see patients in six of these villages.
There are many patients who stand out for Dr. Friesen. One of the worst things that happened was when they saw a three-month-old baby. The parents came knocking on the door at night. “But it was too late and the baby died on our dining room table. The parents couldn’t afford heart medication that costs about $8 a month,” Dr. Friesen recalls.
There was a better ending to another story. A Peace Corps worker came and asked Dr. Friesen to make a house call. “A woman was dying of breast cancer and she had no pain relief whatsoever. We were able to help her and the next day we went back and she was pain free. This medicine was able to give her five good days of quality time with her family.”
The people of Copan survive on subsistence farming and it is common to see people in their 80s working the fields. Dr. Friesen says that health problems in Honduras can be characterized as: diseases due to poverty; diseases due to inadequate access to health care; and tropical diseases.
The Honduras work involves the whole family and patients from his Peterborough clinic. “My patients contribute thousands of dollars to our work and almost every member of my family has been to Honduras,” he says. “The money that is raised is used for medicines, interpreters, trucks and special care – one year we paid for a child to have his appendix taken out at a local hospital.”
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” says the father of four. “It is my chance to give back.”