Living in Honduras and Guatemala is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Series of Strokes of the Worst Luck Possible


Being poor and living in the Honduran countryside is hard as it is, but some families have some extra blows to deal with.

This is about a family that I’ve known for years, living in a small village near Copán Ruinas. The oldest kids were some of the first students I ever taught and the rest of the brothers and sisters steadily followed over the years, participating in our photo, mapping, art and video projects.
I remember all too well how we celebrated the end of a video project about five years ago when we noticed that one of the participants, the thirteen year old daughter of this particular family, looked a bit chubby. I remember thinking that she might be pregnant but discarded the idea. I mean, I’m all too aware about teenage pregnancies, but this one was only thirteen and still such a girl!

What a shock to get a phone call only a day after that the girl, let’s call her Doris, was rushed to the hospital in Santa Rosa de Copán were she had given birth to a premature but otherwise healthy baby boy. Her mother, Doña Teresa was there with her, without money or clothes, so with some friends we put some things together and sent it to the hospital.
The baby boy turned out to be the cutest thing ever and is going to school this year. His mother Doris is also back in school while her mother watches her son. So far, so good.

A real tragedy struck when not long after the birth of yet another mouth to feed, Teresa’s sister Leticia, mother of a six year old daughter, was diagnosed with cancer, a nasty tumor right behind her eye.
Going to doctors isn’t easy if you are not used to it since birth, let alone if you don’t have the money to pay for it. But luckily, Leticia was not alone. Argi, the manager of a local B&B where both Teresa was working, dragged her along to a doctor in town and from there from one specialist to another. She contacted a medical brigade (the Rice Foundation) that comes to Honduras to do surgery once a year and Leticia had surgery twice in the following years plus fellow-up chemotherapy treatment. That was quite an ordeal too, because she had to travel to San Pedro or Tegucigalpa, scary as hell for a country girl that had never traveled further than the central park of Copán Ruinas. Leticia was doing much better every day and learned to smile and enjoy life again. Alas, not for very long. Despite the operations and treatment, Leticia passed away last year. Her daughter is being raised by her sister Teresa and her grandmother. Leticia was only 33 years old.

Teresa doesn’t only look after her children and grandchildren all by herself, she also takes care of her elderly mother Doña Munda. This old lady isn’t too fond of the modern ways of life, such as using a latrine, so she does it the way she always did. One day, about two years ago, she was just doing her business in the bushes on the edge of the village when a friend of mine walked by with his dogs and a tourist he was guiding around. Doña Munda all of a sudden appeared from the bushes, startling everyone, especially one of my friend’s dogs, who thought she was a fiendish enemy, and bit her in the leg. Although not life threatening, it was a nasty wound, so my friend did what needed to be done and took her to the nearest clinic. This was easier said than done, because they were way up in the mountains. Luckily, the tourist that accompanied him was a big fellow, so he scooped the tiny Doña Munda up in his arms and carried her all the way down to where the car was parked. From there they drove her to the clinic, gave her money for treatment and a taxi back home and then continued their hike. There wasn’t much they could do for Doña Munda at the moment: she was in good hands (her daughter Leticia was there too), and the tourist had paid for his now much deserved hike after all. So far so good. Except that ten minutes later the clinic was robbed by some armed guys and the doctor and patients were all robbed of their valuables.
Despite everything, Doña Munda was doing okay, she just needed daily shots of antibiotics for a week or so, so the same friend (who happens to be a nurse) went up to the village every day for the next week to give her the injection.

This year, bad luck yet again. Six months ago, Doña Teresa went to the health centre in town to have a molar pulled and the wound got infected. The same friend who had helped her sister, Argi, dragged her from doctor to dentist to yet another doctor. Teresa received various antibiotic treatments but the swelling wouldn’t go down and over the months she got sicker and sicker. Last week, the family was in the middle of a praying session when all of a sudden worms crawled out of Teresa’s eye and cheek. Shock and panic all over and the conclusion was, of course: witchcraft.

Argi intervened yet again and after consulting some local doctors, she made an appointment with an orthodontic surgeon in Chiquimula, a town in Guatemala at about an hour and a half drive, for us in Copán the nearest medical facility. She was going there anyway because Argi’s employers dog needed chemotherapy treatment. My dog was sick as well, so I went along for the ride.
While I took the dogs to the vet, Argi went with Teresa and her daughter in law María to the lab for an x-ray and from there on to the surgeon. The news was bad. The infection had spread beneath the skin of her whole face and larvae were eating away the rotten flesh. The larvae are from a fly that usually infects only horses, but isn’t too picky on which kind of infected skin it lays its eggs. Apparently, Teresa had had some teeth pulled previously (or they had fallen out, that’s unclear), but the roots were never removed. They are now also infected and feasted upon by the larvae. The main problem however, was that the infection is still spreading and can get her brain infected anytime, which will most likely result in death. So the surgeon suggested to operate her as soon as possible, but wanted to consult wit a colleague, an internist, first.
So we waited for another few hours and for more bad news: the internist agreed and insisted on emergency surgery. So from there we went straight to the hospital were yet another doctor came to the same conclusion: an operation as soon as possible, or else…

The problem was… A surgery costs an enormous amount of money, at least for people here. A quick calculation by the doctor came up to $4000. Daughter in law Eva went pale when she heard that amount and said that she hoped that the doctor was talking about 4,000 Lempiras and not 4,000 Quetzales. Unfortunately I had to tell her he was talking about dollars, which comes up to about 80,000 Lempiras.
So what to do? Argi explained the doctor that Teresa has no money whatsoever, but since it really was a matter of life or death, he promised to do the operation anyway.

So at 5.30pm we left Chiquimula to go back to Honduras, one person short. It was awful to leave poor Teresa behind, without toiletries or anything, but at least she was well taken care of while getting ready for the operation this morning.  

The latest news is that the operation went well but they want to keep her in the hospital for another ten days. This costs a considerable amount of money (about $50 per day), but Argi has been going around doctors in town and has been in contact with the surgeon in Guatemala and they all agree that Teresa can get the intravenous antibiotic treatment here in Copán at a lower price, which will lower the overall costs considerably. But still, assuming there will be no complications, we’re looking at a huge amount of hospital bills…

As for how to pay for it all? That still remains the big question… Argi and I are writing letters to any person or institution that might help. So far we have $500 pledged. This family has been lucky enough in all their tragedy to receive help when needed and we hope that once more they will. So if you want to help out, any donation is more than welcome! We need money and we need it NOW!!!

(For privacy reasons I have changed some of the names and omitted last names as well as the name of the village the family is from. If you’re interested in helping Doña Teresa, I can give you specified details on the treatment and other details. Please write me at: carinsteen at

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