Divisions >> Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery >> Otolaryngology Surgery Update e-newsletter >> September 2014 Issue >> Alumni News
Wisconsin Otolaryngology in La Ceiba, Honduras
By Ashley G. Anderson, Resident Class of 1982
The coastal town of La Ceiba, Honduras, lies nestled on the southeastern boundary of the Gulf of Honduras, home to more than 200,000 Hondurans and the most ambitious and long-lasting outreach effort of our Otolaryngology family. In 1999 Dr. Mike McDonald and I first traveled to Honduras, along with nurses, anesthetists, cases of equipment and supplies, and our two young daughters, fresh from our spouses’ admonitions that should anything happen to either of them, we need not consider returning.
Mike had developed a friendship with a local Honduran otolaryngologist named Rigoberto Tabora, who had invited Mike to assist him in caring for a massive underserved population. Mike accepted the invitation and began the quest for equipment and personnel to accompany him on his mission — a mission that would eventually span 14 years and involve numerous residents, staff physicians, nurses and other volunteers.
Our initial visit was to a virtually abandoned Swiss hospital with little equipment of significance. We brought anesthesia machines, drugs, operating equipment and willing personnel. For a week we performed ear surgeries, thyroid surgeries, plastics procedures and other routine cases before decamping to Roatan for some needed rest. While happy with what we had done, we were humbled by what we had left undone.
What began as an adventure has become a passion for Mike McDonald. I’ve returned to Honduras with him several times, but Mike has made the pilgrimage annually without fail since that first year. Meanwhile, back in Madison during the year, Mike scrambles for additional equipment and personnel for the next year’s trip.
The current hospital is better equipped with inpatient and operating room facilities that allowed for running two operating rooms all day long, and a higher level of postoperative care. Over time, Mike’s efforts to provide much needed supplies has evolved as well, with shipping containers sent in advance, filled with surgical supplies, operating tables, anesthesia machines, pharmaceuticals, and other medical supplies. This effort depends upon many volunteers and donations from those who may never see Honduras, yet who are committed to the mission. For example, Chet Hermanson (of Chet’s Car Care) provides storage for supplies during the year and frequently travels to Honduras to meet the containers when they arrive. And the Starkey hearing aid company donates hundreds of hearing aids that we can provide at no charge.
The weeklong trip always begins in the same way, with a clinic consisting of scores of patients needing surgery lined up by Dr. Tabora, and the difficult process of deciding who will receive care and who will not. Some conditions are too advanced for surgical care and others have health conditions that preclude surgery. Those patients who are appropriate candidates for surgery range from routine cases to advanced ear disease, head and neck cancers, and many with massive thyroid goiters. By the end of the day, the cases for the week have been selected and placed on the schedule. The patients show up for their procedures without fail.
The relatively small traveling contingent has grown over time, with volunteers consisting of operating room nurses, scrub techs, anesthesiologists, anesthetists, audiologists, drivers, cooks, teachers, students and other folks who lend a hand with the complex logistics of providing medical care. The physician contingent changes annually, with the sole exception being Mike McDonald. I asked Mike for a list of our department members who have accompanied him. Current and former residents have included Ken Condon, Steve Vandenberg, Sarah Hodges, Lee Shama, Todd Jones, Joanna Watkins, Dave Campbell, Chuck Armstrong, Tony Kille, Gary Sack, Greg Sewell, Mike Freiman, Kevin Kriesel, Scott Chaiet, Chris Brit and Paul Staskowski. (Apologies to anyone who has been missed — blame Mike’s memory). Many of the participants are nurses and anesthetists recruited by Mike.
Whether physicians, students, community volunteers or other health care professionals, every participant agrees they take away more from the experience than they give, humbled by the grace and nobility of the Honduran people. Evening group meals are a chance to reflect on life, appreciate our own good fortune, and understand our place in the world. It is an exercise in compassion — a journey that can only be characterized as life changing.
This effort has made Mike, and those who accompany him to Honduras, beloved by the La Ceiba community. They have forged relationships with other providers, businesses, and community leaders, taking medical volunteerism to the next level. It takes a team to make such an impact, but Mike is clearly the quarterback. For those who wish to become involved in this effort, feel free to email Mike.