Editor's Note: Daily Record staff writer Tami Mosser spent eight days in Honduras at the invitation of the Orrville-based Central American Medical Outreach (CAMO). With the question of immigration splitting our nation, it seemed a good time to go and see what drives people to join caravans and make risky desert crossings in search of a better life. We also wanted to show how a group of dedicated Americans works alongside their Honduran counterparts to bring services to this poor Central American country. Mosser’s travel expenses were partially underwritten by Wooster residents and longtime CAMO supporters Ted and Sue Crawford.
SANTA ROSA DE COPAN, HONDURAS — Alex is being released today from Hospital de Occidente.
But right now, he's lying on a bed in the men's surgical ward, where 22 beds sometimes are filled with 30 patients or more, some two per single bed. They come for a variety of reasons, everything from appendicitis to pancreatitis, from burns to car accidents to gunshot wounds.
And for more than a dozen years this ward — with no air conditioning and just one common bathroom — has been tended to by head nurse Doris Ramirez.
She's been in nursing for 34 years, all of it at the Hospital de Occidente. “I always loved it,” she said through an interpreter. “This was my passion for a career.”
All the patients she cares for, Ramirez said, “are like sons to me.” But, she admits, Alex is a special case.
The 33-year-old man from a town an hour's bus ride away has colon cancer. He had his colon removed here, but returned to the hospital when his wound did not heal properly.
In addition to the cancer, Ramirez said, Alex suffers from the same thing that many Hondurans deal with — malnutrition. At more than 50 percent, Honduras has one of the highest malnutrition rates in Latin America.
When Alex returned to the hospital two weeks ago, Ramirez sought out the services of Bianca Ramirez, a nutritionist hired just a year ago. She was referred to the Orrville-based Central American Medical Outreach by the hospital's medical director, who saw the need for her services but had no money to hire her.
Bianca Ramirez came in to see Alex and she and the nurse showed him what he needed to be eating, though he was resistant at first. “The wound will not heal,” Doris Ramirez told him, “unless you can eat well.”
But that's the issue, agree Deb and Joe Marino, CAMO volunteers from Green who work with Ramirez to try to stem the problem.
The couple met in college. Joe Marino, a Philadelphia native is a University of Notre Dame graduate; Ohio-born Deb Marino graduated from St. Mary’s College. The two lived in California for a while and for three years in Bolivia.
While in Bolivia, the Marinos were awakened in the middle of the night by a mother who had walked for hours with her sick baby. But the baby died, Joe Marino said, before he could get the child to the hospital or arrange for other care. “It was too late,” Joe Marino said.
“It didn’t have to be too late,” his wife said.
From that point, the couple agreed that when the time was right, they’d go to a place where they could help save the lives of other children.
Now retired, Deb Marino taught community nutrition students at the University of Akron, while Joe Marino practiced internal medicine.
In 2009, Deborah Marino got a call from Aultman Orrville Hospital nutritionist Bobbie Randall, who told her about CAMO's work in Honduras. “And then we just got sucked in,” Deb Marino said. “There's no turning back now. We have so much; we want to be giving back.”
So the two work with Bianca Ramirez in clinics, doing assessments, training other medical professionals, and working on strategies to bring medical foods and supplements to the Honduran people in need.
“The fundamental thing is that people don’t place much importance on nutrition. There’s a lack of education,” Ramirez said. “Honduras has a lot of malnutrition because of a lack of food and people don’t have a varied diet.”
The Honduran diet is largely starch — beans and tortillas, not a lot of meat or protein. Beans and tortillas are cheap, filling and easy to get and prepare. But, Ramirez said, that leads to vitamin deficiencies. And in a country dependent on workers to harvest the coffee crop, many Hondurans tend to have money only in the harvest season.
So, by the summer and fall “children are losing weight,” Ramirez said. “They're not growing.” And then harvest time comes and things might get better. But then the cycle begins again.
There just isn't enough money to maintain a healthy diet.
Last week, Deb Marino said, a 4-month-old baby came into the clinic. With no money for food, the nursing mother's milk had dried up and there was no money for formula. “So she mixed flour and water,” Deb Marino said, “and fed that to the baby.”
The baby, looking as plump as any other, was suffering from kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of protein. The plumpness was misleading — the baby was swollen because of the associated fluid retention.
A pediatrician was consulted. The baby was introduced ounce by ounce to formula.
But eventually, patients leave. Food again becomes an issue.
There are ways to help, Deb Marino said. There is Plumpy Nut — a peanut-based paste in an easy-to-open plastic wrapper that requires no dish or utensils — and Incaparina, a soybean meal-corn flour mix infused with vitamins and minerals that can be mixed with either milk or water.
And long-term, the Marinos said, they'd like to see a garden project get off the ground, where Hondurans with just a bit of land can plant and grow food for their own consumption.
So convinced are they of the potential for ongoing success of the CAMO nutrition program, the Marinos are hosting a fundraiser when they return to the states. The Food for Healing dinner and auction will be held at the SYB Party Center in Stow from 5-10 p.m. March 23. At last year’s event, $12,000 was raised for the nutrition program.
But to fight malnutrition, Joe Marino said, is to fight poverty, which is rampant all across the country. “The thing that hits us over and over again is it's life or death,” Deb Marino said. “It's the difference between them living and not living.”
For Alex, the message has gotten through. As he prepares to leave the ward, he takes with him Incaparina to make at home and promises both Bianca Ramirez and Doris Ramirez that he is committed to eating well and getting healthy.
He whispered in Doris Ramirez's ear and she laughed and hugged him goodbye.
“He said whenever I can get out there, they're going to kill a chicken,” she said, “and make me chicken soup.”
Tami Mosser can be reached at 330-287-1655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.