Trying to Stay Afloat

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and hospitals there lack many necessities. People take advantage of any occasion to obtain medical care.

Instituto Técnico Nueva Suyapa is located in a suburb of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Even though it was still early on a Sunday morning, the school was bustling with people preparing for a Tzu Chi free clinic.

As the hot sun rose in the sky, the big crowds waiting outside to enter the clinic drew food vendors, but the aromas from their food made the people even hungrier. Some people blocked the sun with umbrellas or fanned themselves to keep cool as they inched toward the entrance to the clinic, where volunteers carefully checked in only the permitted people. Inside the school, 69 medical volunteers treated patients as fast as they could, but still the line of waiting people extended a long way outside the school. Armed soldiers stood guard to ensure that the event would proceed in an orderly fashion.

This was the seventh free clinic that the foundation has provided in Honduras since 2011.


Honduran volunteers help a patient get around at a Tzu Chi free clinic held at a school in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  William Keh

A nation stressed

Honduras has struggled for economic prosperity. It has been besieged on several fronts, including a trade deficit, natural disasters, and political unrest.

For too many years, Honduras has imported far more goods and services than it has exported. It has also run up a huge pile of foreign debts. Despite repeated attempts, the national government has yet to identify or implement policies that result in economic growth. The nation is stuck in poverty.

Natural disasters have made it that much harder for the country to climb out of poverty. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was among a seemingly unbroken chain of unrelenting violent weather conditions that devastated the nation and left it no chance to recover.

Honduras has been beset by military coups ever since it gained independence in 1821. The national treasury, paltry at best, has mostly been used to pay for military action, leaving the government with little or no funds to improve the infrastructure of the nation. Many rural areas are still without running water. Mosquitoes are rampant, and outbreaks of dengue fever are an annual event. The country was hit by a Zika virus epidemic in 2016.







People with gloomy faces wait in a long line for their turn to obtain free medical care. Falling ill is often a nightmare in Honduras, where medical resources are severely lacking.




Health insurance

The Honduran government runs a medical insurance program for its citizens, but not all people can afford the premiums. The government automatically withholds medical insurance premiums from people’s salaries, but as for the unemployed, no money can be obtained from them.

Generally speaking, residents in urban areas can obtain medical care at public hospitals, free for the insured or the unemployed, and US$35 per visit for the uninsured. The problem is that pharmaceuticals are extremely hard to find. Many patients see doctors but then cannot obtain the medications necessary to treat their illnesses.

People in the countryside depend on public health centers for medical care. Again drugs are scarce, and even if they are available, many patients can’t afford them. As a result, they must helplessly allow their illnesses to take their natural course.

As if the situation were not dire enough, the nation was hit in 2015 by a major corruption scandal that involved the Social Security Institute. It was found that money had been embezzled from the public health system. With all the cards stacked against them, Hondurans seeking medical care could really use some relief.


Tzu Chi in Honduras

Tzu Chi volunteers first delivered aid to Honduras in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The foundation has provided assistance to the nation ever since.

William Keh (葛濟捨), M.D., CEO of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in the United States, has led aid missions to Honduras for more than a decade. During this time, Tzu Chi has built housing, distributed relief goods, and conducted free clinics.

Keh is well aware of the needs of the local poor people. He traveled again to Honduras with other volunteers from the United States in May 2017, at the invitation of Jorge Chang (張鴻才), head of Tzu Chi Honduras. They conducted another free clinic, trained local volunteers, and discussed the feasibility of setting up a physical space in which to offer on-going medical care for the needy.

The free clinic, held on May 28, provided more than clinical care to the recipients. Local volunteers showed patients how to keep insect-borne communicable diseases at bay. Medical students walked about the venue promoting hygiene or health education. A nutrition team talked to people about improving their diets through healthy eating. Patients who were diabetic or allergic to certain foods were even escorted into a classroom for private consultations.

Parents were happy to see their children entertained by a female clown, which allowed them to see the doctors undistracted by their kids. The clown painted children’s faces, gave out balloons, and led games.

On average, two volunteers escorted each patient in and out. Some patients needed special assistance. For example, volunteers needed to support or carry weak patients who had restricted mobility. The volunteers were physically close enough to the patients to smell their body odor—some patients did not always have water at home to wash themselves—but the volunteers paid no heed to the odor. They were happy to help, and the patients were happy to receive such thoughtful services.

The bathrooms at the Instituto Técnico Nueva Suyapa did not have water. In fact, many places in the nation do not have running water. Consequently, skin diseases are widespread.



Dr. Shirley Chen (陳恂滿) from the United States, second from right, and other volunteers teach children oral hygiene. One hundred and twenty-eight patients received dental treatment during the free clinic.




The free clinic

The free clinic was scheduled to run from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, but the large number of patients made it necessary for the clinic to stay open until 6:30. All told, 111 medical and support volunteers served 944 patient visits that day.

Volunteers identified five individuals who needed further aid. One of them was a boy, 17, who was born disabled below the knees. He relied on braces and sticks to walk. His braces no longer fit, but he could not afford new ones. Tzu Chi volunteers decided to help him buy a new pair.

Glennallan Goryl, one of the volunteers in the free clinic, had worked in emergency medicine before he retired. He wrote down in his notebook what he saw that day: “This is the best organized and most efficient free clinic that I’ve ever been associated with. Every volunteer knew exactly what to do. Things just flew flawlessly, without bottlenecks. Volunteers accompanied patients with love. They gave the patients not just medical care but also sincere love.”


Putting down roots in Honduras

Tzu Chi started offering volunteer training in Honduras in 2011. There are now four certified volunteers there and 445 more in training. They are mostly local Hondurans.

The head of Tzu Chi Honduras, Jorge Chang, hails from Taiwan. In 1987, his then employer, the Taiwan Power Company, assigned him to work in Honduras. Ten years later, he returned to Taiwan to retire from the company. As soon as the retirement procedure was completed, he returned to Honduras.

In 1998, he signed on with a Taiwanese project to build an industrial park in the northern part of Honduras, but Hurricane Mitch trounced the country before the project could be inaugurated. Roads were badly damaged and houses were destroyed. As a result, he was forced to sit idle at home.

Tzu Chi volunteers from the United States brought aid to the country after the hurricane. Staffers at the Taiwanese embassy connected them with Chang. He guided the volunteers to disaster areas to survey the damage, and he helped clear aid supplies through customs. That was the first time that he worked with Tzu Chi personnel.

After that disaster relief mission, Chang started his post-retirement career in earnest, and he did well in his business. He even became the inaugural chairman of the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and he went on to serve a second term.

He had an on-and-off relationship with Tzu Chi during this time, during which he was able to observe the work and ideals of the foundation. A circumspect man, Chang was eventually convinced that Tzu Chi was a good organization to work for. He has been wholeheartedly devoted to it ever since.

Honduras has led the world in homicide rates for a number of years. “People live under a shadow on a long-term basis,” said Chang. “Residents of the areas where public security is especially bad live with the fear that once they leave their homes, they may not return alive.” Chang really feels for the people of the country.

Though he may not be able to do anything directly about the homicide rate, he has found other ways to help the local people. He had the option to return to Taiwan and lead a comfortable life, but he chose to stay in Honduras and live in a house with no air-conditioning. He is staying put so that he can carry out his mission there. He has worked with Honduran volunteers in distributing relief goods and building homes for the needy, and he is personally involved in volunteer training. Together, they hope to find a tomorrow that is brighter than today.



Volunteers from Honduras and the United States made the May 28 free clinic possible.







Fall 2017