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2011 News Releases

Longwood faculty, staff and students participate in Friends of Barnabas Foundation medical mission trip to Honduras

August 17, 2011

Registered nurse Patti Wagner, with her translator, Elmer
Registered nurse Patti Wagner, with her translator, Elmer (far left), reviews a medical health card while seeing a family for assessment and treatment in Honduras

A clinical nurse in Longwood University's Student Health & Wellness Center, Patti Wagner, has gone on 16 medical mission trips to Honduras with the Methodist Church's Friends of Barnabas Foundation (FOBF) over the last 10 years. This year she was accompanied by a Longwood nursing faculty member, Hadley Sporbert, and two nursing students, Amber Hare and Sarah Callaway.

Sporbert was invited to participate in this year's trip (June 18-26) by team co-leader Bill Hogan. Wagner has co-led seven of the trips with Hogan, led another one by herself, and participated in eight other trips, often as a last-minute fill-in. In the mission, sponsored by the Richmond-based Friends of Barnabas Foundation (FOBF), Wagner's team provides basic medical care in five remote mountain villages over a five-day period. The team usually consists of about 15 people, mostly from Farmville United Methodist Church (FUMC), Wagner's church, through which she participates.

"The people we saw have nothing," said Sporbert, who had never been outside the United States. "They'll walk two or three hours to one of our clinics, because they haven't seen a doctor. They don't even have aspirin or Tylenol."

Sporbert, a  registered nurse like Wagner, plans to go next year and to again reserve two places for Longwood nursing students. "This is an invaluable opportunity for students, who get to use the skills they are learning," said Sporbert, whose background is community health. "Interest in this will certainly become greater than the seats available."

In other Longwood connections on this year's trip, Allison Dobson, a May 2011 graduate, went as a translator, and two others who went were Longwood alumni, Sarah Norton and Kelly Shafer, both of whom teach in the Prince Edward County schools (Norton at the elementary school, Shafer at the middle school).

"I am really excited about the potential collaboration between Farmville United Methodist Church and Longwood's nursing program," Wagner said. "The benefits to our students are endless. This is a life-changing experience for anyone who goes. Each mission trip reminds me of why I became a nurse. I learn something new each time, both professionally and personally. Sharing this experience with others gives me pure joy."

Longwood nursing instructor Hadley Sporbert (left) during one the medical clinics in Honduras

Longwood nursing instructor Hadley Sporbert (left) during one the medical clinics in Honduras

Honduras, in Central America, is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The mission is based at a compound and clinic outside the village of Peña Blanca ("White Pines"). Each day, a former school bus owned by the FOBF takes the mission team to a different remote village in the nearby mountains, up to two and a half hours away, where they set up a clinic in the local schoolhouse. The clinic, offered free, has three components.

"First, we administer Vitamin A and anti-parasite medicine," Wagner said. "Vitamin A, which helps with brain development including eyesight, is drastically lacking in their diet. The parasites are the result of a lack of good sanitation, no clean water, and most kids not having shoes. Intestinal parasites, which get in through skin on the feet or are ingested through water, are the main cause of malnutrition.

"Second, we do eye exams. We use an instrument called a refractor that shines little lasers in their eyes and tells pretty closely the prescription they need. We take glasses collected by the Lions Club of Virginia and give them the glasses that match what they need.

"Third, at each schoolhouse we have medical stations, usually four of them, staffed with medical personnel such as registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and physicians. Each medical person is assigned a translator, and each station brings in a whole family at a time, and they work through that whole family before moving on to the next family. We do head-to-toe assessment. Their medical issues are usually simple things, such as colds and skin infections and malnutrition, the side effects of which are headaches, diarrhea and major weight loss. We dispense preventive children's and pre-natal vitamins; everybody leaves with vitamins. We also take antibiotics to treat infections. We take 18 plastic tubs filled with medicine, which line at least two walls of the schoolhouse.

"In each schoolhouse, we usually use two tables, with two medical persons, and their translators, at each table, sitting on opposite ends. There can be as many as 30 people, Hondurans and the team members, talking at the same time. This year we served 938 men, women and children. I have been on a team that saw 2,500 people in a week. The most we've seen in one day was over 600."

Sporbert said that the time spent in each clinic "averages six to six and a half hours each day. Everybody gets seen." Despite the heavy workload, the mission is "extremely organized," she added.

"The teachers in each village greet us," Wagner said. "They're great. They help set up, do intake information collection, and help with crowd control."

The volunteers offer lessons in such simple hygienic tasks as teeth brushing and hand washing. "After the hand washing lesson, the big girls polished the little girls' nails, then the younger ones painted the older ones' nails. We always take flip-flops and leave them with the teachers who know which ones need them most, and we take cloth diapers that we give to moms with small children or expectant moms. Also, we leave a beach ball with the teacher."

Patti Wagner with Patti

Patti Wagner with Patti (right) and her sister. Patti is caregiver to her sister and her grandparents.

Even though she has gone many times, Wagner said each time is different. "There will always be a day and a moment that takes your breath away," she said. "On the last day this year, it was when two kids, a 14-year-old girl and her eight-year-old sister, came in with a woman who turned out to be their aunt. Because they take home different bags of medicine, we always ask 'Does everybody live in the same house?' We learned the 14-year-old is the caregiver to her sister since her father works 'away,' as do many Honduran men, and her mother died in February, of hepatitis. She also is caregiver to her grandparents, and her grandfather recently had surgery. I had two deaths in my family in February, including my grandmother, and I also learned this child's name is Patti. Those kinds of moments just change you. I could give you tons of other moments. I'm a firm believer that paths cross in your life for a reason."

Sporbert offered similar comments. "It was a moving experience," she said. "It reshapes the way our (life) journey is supposed to go. I really felt the presence of God among us in the communities we served."

The mission team always flies into San Pedro de Sula, Honduras' second largest city, then takes an FOBF bus (the same one that takes them into the mountain) to the compound outside Peña Blanca. The compound, which Wagner calls the "base camp," has a Honduran staff who manage the clinic five days week, arrange travel, feed the volunteers, run a farm to support the operation, and live and work there year-round. Volunteers sleep there every night, after returning from the villages, in dormitory-like lodgings.

"Eighty percent of the roads in Honduras are dirt roads, and they're very winding," Wagner said. "Sometimes it's just a cow path, and sometimes you have to go through a river."

The team has changed its approach in how it chooses the villages it visits. "In the past, the attitude was 'Let's get to as many people as we can,'" Wagner said. "The Barnabas Foundation is now concentrating on 18 villages that will be seen repeatedly. The goal is to see each village three times a year, which will provide continuity of care, rather than the approach of a wider, more scattered net that was used in the past. We hope to visit several of the same villages next year and to build relationships with them, to use leaders in those villages to work with the people, and to have some follow-up of care and to monitor trends of disease processes. We are focusing on longterm health education and health management change. In the past, the approach was kind of like throwing a band-aid on something and walking away, which is often the case in the Third World."

Despite this change, a different team sponsored by the Barnabas Foundation still goes to Honduras every month, to five villages, a different one each day. Wagner has previously visited two of the villages the team visited this June.

Wagner has twice been to Honduras as part of the Barnabas Foundation-sponsored cardiac pediatric surgery team, the only such team in that country, which goes about every year. "This team, which has 35 members and usually spends about nine days in Honduras, does open-heart surgery and cardiac catheterization," she said. "When I accompanied the team last fall, we did 35 caths and 19 open-heart surgeries. We take over half of a hospital."

The Barnabas Foundation sponsors 11 medical missions to Honduras, including a neurology team and an oral-maxillary team, to repair cleft lips and cleft palates, both of which go about every two years. Also, the Foundation has a free extended care program for kids, at the compound, in which they do referrals or treat them there. This the 10th year the FOBF has sponsored medical missions to Honduras and the ninth year that FUMC members have participated.

"The Honduran experience left an indelible mark on me," Sporbert said. "The medical mission trip provided an opportunity for me, as a nurse, to help others who have little or no access to health care. It also provided the Longwood nursing students who participated in the opportunity to serve others, in essence, to be citizen leaders within the profession and the community abroad.

"As an educator, one of my many roles is to mentor students to become better human beings through service for those less fortunate. It is not always about being the best or most competent nurse but being the best human being one can one can be. Nursing others then comes naturally."