Making a difference in Honduras
One afternoon in 1997, a gregarious American paramedic was practicing his Spanish language skills in a bar in Copán Ruinas, Honduras, when an urgent plea for help filtered through the door. “There’s a kid hurt,” recalled Rodger Harrison. “They thought I was a doctor. There was not a doctor in town who would treat the poor people, so I got involved.” He asked about an ambulance, but there was no such thing.
The patient was a little girl with a deep slice to her foot. “I had my first aid kit with me and I could bandage, but this girl needed stitches,” he said. A willing “doctora” was finally found, but when she arrived, she had no supplies. She boiled some hair from a horse’s tail and used it to stitch the girl’s cut—without anesthetic. “It was a real-life experience,” concluded Harrison, one that led him to a new path in life: making a difference in the lives of the people in northern Honduras.
Fast forward 20-plus years: Harrison, now 66, lives in Copán Ruinas with his wife, Suyapa, and their three children. Their gracious hacienda also serves as a bed-and-breakfast, and the proceeds help fund the onsite medical clinic he founded in 2005. Called “Clinica la Esperanza,” it provides medical care to all who come, regardless of ability to pay.
The clinic is the centerpiece of Paramedics for Children, the nonprofit Harrison and a small group of dedicated helpers started in 1997 with little more than passion and determination. Officially called Paramedics for Children International (PFCI), the IRS tax-exempt charity also administers education programs and has provided disaster relief throughout Central America and beyond. Harrison has, indeed, made a difference.
The story of PFCI starts with the man some describe as “larger than life.” Harrison is one of those naturally friendly, likable people always ready with a joke, story or song. He retired from a successful commercial real estate career when he turned 40 in 1991, but quickly realized that everyone else was still busy. “I had a boat, but my friends couldn’t go out fishing,” he lamented.
An accomplished musician, Harrison writes songs and plays “guitar, harmonica, anything with strings,” he said. When he still lived in his hometown of Gastonia, N.C., he was part of several bands that were popular throughout the region. One night in 1992, his band, Harrison & McClure, was playing near Charlotte (N.C.), when he met Roz Morton. A media consultant and owner of a media planning and buying firm, Morton was integral to the early years of Paramedics for Children, and still serves as its finance director.
Around that time, the allure of EMS had caught his eye and he was already working as an EMT. When the two met, he was getting ready for his final paramedic school exams. He asked Morton if she’d be interested in managing his band. She was, and before long, they were opening on side stages for such well-known singers as Reba McEntyre and Mary Chapin Carpenter. She also hired Harrison to be her creative director at the ad agency, where he wrote and recorded voiceovers for TV and radio spots.
Harrison loved his several years of working as a paramedic for Gaston Emergency Medical Services (in Gastonia). “I was an enigma,” he said about being an older medic. He said he certainly took flak for driving a new Lincoln Continental to work! He loved his job, but in 1997, sidelined with a rotator cuff injury, he knew his days of lifting stretchers were numbered.
From the office he shared with Morton, they noticed people, many of them Hispanic, coming and going from the nearby immigration office. “We figured one of us should get immersed in the Spanish culture. People in America were going to need to know Spanish,” he said. “And Central America was supposed to be the next big tourist area.”
This led Harrison to return briefly to his realtor roots and join a group of investors touring Central America to assess the land development market. The trip was nearly over when they arrived at Copán Ruinas. Harrison was smitten by the famous Mayan ruins, cobblestone streets, adobe buildings and red-tiled roofs. “I jumped ship and stayed there, and studied Spanish at the local Spanish school,” he said.
Harrison returned to the town four times in 1997 to continue his studies. Described by Lonely Planet as “one of the most charming and traveler-oriented places in Honduras,” Copán Ruinas lies in a broad valley with tiny upland villages (called “albeas”) scattered in clusters of 16–25 homes throughout the rugged mountainous region. The people are mostly indigenous Chortí, descendants of the ancient Mayan civilization that built the ruins in Copán.
Harrison soon realized the schools in the albeas were poorly supplied, so he began taking rigorous journeys by horseback to deliver school supplies, offering goodwill, music and what medical care he knew how to give along the way.
“It took two weeks to get all the schools done,” he said, “and we’d do that four times a year.” He still does, although now the horses are retired and they use a Kawasaki 4WD “mule.”
Then came Hurricane Mitch.
Destruction & Recovery
The storm hit on Halloween in 1998. Rated a Category 5, Hurricane Mitch moved slowly across the Caribbean, sucking up moisture. When it hit land, it dumped unprecedented volumes of rain—up to 12 inches a day for several days—with wind exceeding 120 mph for two days along the coast.
Severe flooding caused hundreds of mudslides. Most crops were destroyed, and most bridges and roads were washed away. More than 1.5 million people were left homeless. Of the more than 11,000 deaths from the storm, 7,000 were in Honduras.
Harrison had just returned to North Carolina from a trip to Copán Ruinas a week earlier. The owner of his regular lodging there called after getting her generator running, and she was frantic. “Where is everybody? No one is here to help us. We have no water or food, everything is covered in mud,” he recalled her saying. He and Morton used their radio and TV connections to ask for supply donations. He used his commercial realtor connections to get a warehouse to use in Charlotte. And Harrison, who also had a commercial pilot’s license, found a small aviation company in Florida willing to fly him and the donations to Honduras. A trucking company donated an 18-wheeler to haul everything to Florida.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” recalled Morton. They used her bathroom scales at the warehouse to weigh everything box by box until they reached the weight limit for the plane. “We didn’t know about shrink wrap or pallets or anything.”
After the first trip, Morton remembered Harrison telling her that he saw terrible things as he walked around distributing food and supplies, including dismembered bodies. One little girl, maybe 7 years old, was sitting with her little brother and holding an infant. By the time he returned with some food and water for them, the baby had died in the little girl’s arms. Their parents were dead.
“We raised money and rented that plane every couple of months for the first year,” said Morton. Getting in and out was challenging, and sometimes, said Harrison, they had to do cargo drops or land in the fields.
On one trip, a reporter was waiting at an airport to interview Harrison. “She asked the name of the organization, and we didn’t have a name,” he said. “Well, who do we tell people to give money to?” he recalled her asking. “You’re a paramedic, right? You help the children, right? Why don’t you call it Paramedics for Children?”
“And that’s how we got our name. She named us!” said Harrison with a chuckle.
When recovery efforts from Hurricane Mitch slowed, Harrison resumed his deliveries of school supplies and basic medical care to the rural areas by horseback. In 1999, when he returned to the U.S. from one such trip, he said, “I made the mistake of telling my friends about there being no ambulances, and they said, ‘why don’t you get one?'”
He did. Turning to his EMS connections, Harrison started obtaining used ambulances slated for retirement. For several years, the main project at PFCI was repurposing old ambulances, filling them with donated medical and school supplies, and shipping them to Honduras.
The work was daunting for the fledgling charity, but help came from a surprising corner: the Parrot Head Club of Charlotte (of which Rodger was a charter member). “Parrot Heads” are devotees of singer Jimmy Buffet—one of Harrison’s favorite acts to cover as an entertainer. An international nonprofit organization with more than 200 clubs, Parrot Heads unite under the slogan, “party with a purpose” and engage in “activities that are charitable, educational and that promote the general welfare of the community” according to their website. For PFCI, this meant years of valuable assistance that also included, for four years, putting on two fundraising music festivals a year.
With equipment came the need for trained people to use it. In 1999, Harrison turned his energy to training and development of rescue squads, and graduated the first class of Honduran EMTs that year. In 2001, he relocated fulltime to Honduras to support the work there while Morton stayed in the States to manage things—in particular, fundraising—on that end.
By 2004, PFCI had developed the first volunteer ambulance service in Central America, including rescue teams in nearby Guatemala. During those years, according to Harrison, PFC delivered more than 50 ambulances to Honduras and trained about 340 volunteer EMTs. The development of the EMS infrastructure was largely taken over by in-country personnel when EMS was integrated into the fire service, but PFCI hasn’t wavered from its commitment to provide medical relief for people in need. (Nowadays, sadly, patients in Copán Ruinas take the 2.5-hour ride to the hospital by bus, since local ambulance service is no longer available.)
Creating the Clinic
Although the paramedic in Harrison still loves emergency care, he realized as time went on that PFCI could make a different sort of impact by building access to basic medical care for the people in and around Copán Ruinas. In 2005, this led to Clinica la Esperanza. PFCI owns the buildings and medical equipment, Harrison said, and the doctor, nurse and receptionist are independent contractors. PFCI provides an apartment for the doctor, plus a small stipend.
The clinic provides quality medical care to some of the poorest communities in Central America. To date, more than 50,000 people have come through the clinic’s doors. In keeping with the intense pride of the local people, the doctor charges a small fee of 75 limieras ($3) per consultation, plus medicine.
But, said Harrison, “there’s no hard and fast rule. If someone can’t pay, you have to treat him. We don’t give things away, to avoid creating beggars, so if someone has no money, [we might have them] send their oldest son to clean up for a few days and we’ll be square.” Or payment might arrive in the form of chickens or bananas, and that’s ok.
Harrison said doctors typically stay several years, gaining irreplaceable experience, and the clinic has grown ever-busier. Dr. Miguel Moreno, the current chief physician, is in his fourth year at Clinica la Esperanza. He’s often flanked by an intern or two who are learning more than they ever imagined they would.
The internship program is one of two main volunteer program opportunities at PFCI: 1) medical, and 2) educational. In the medical program, students and people with medical training (e.g., paramedics, nurses, physician assistants, physicians) work in the clinic, shadowing the doctor and doing various hands-on tasks. Working in such a unique medical setting yields valuable, career-building experience for the interns.
Michael Jensen, 22, of Portland, Ore., had a 10-day medical internship in December 2016. His dream of becoming a physician began in his freshman year of high school. Now a college graduate, he’s ready for medical school—and his resume is surely enriched by his PFCI experience.
“At first, I was just trying to follow the conversation,” said Jensen, who speaks Spanish, but soon discovered the dialect is unique to Copán. “We’d see a patient, and after, [Dr. Miguel] would review it with me and the paramedic who was with me. We’d talk about his decisions.”
Jensen said he saw a lot of similar situations: “UTI, bacterial infections, a lot of parasites,” he said. But by the end of the week, Dr. Miguel increasingly offered Jensen and the other intern hands-on duties.
“One case we had speaks to the simplicity of the medicine there, and how a simple treatment can make a large impact on quality of life,” recalled Jensen. “There was a campesino, a farmer, who had never cleaned his ears. Wax had built up so badly and collected so much dust that he could barely hear anything. It was also painful.”
Dr. Miguel gave each of his interns a syringe. “We basically irrigated his ear. Ryan did one ear and I did the other. It took 30–40 squirts, and it was so gross, you’d see all this black hard gunk falling out of the ear … He had to push through the pain, but eventually it cleared up and he could hear.”
According to Harrison, medical personnel who come from a developed nation such as the United States gain tremendously from the internship program. “The first thing you get is, you’re astounded by how we get by with so little. People walk away wondering how we do it,” he said.
In addition, the experience can be very hands-on, especially when interns stay two weeks. “Michael got to do a lot of stuff even paramedics can’t do,” said Harrison. “The doctor is totally responsible, and he’ll let them act up to their full potential.”
Anyone can volunteer for the education program, and there are opportunities for individuals, couples, groups and families, people of all ages, “… and no, you don’t have to be a paramedic!” asserts the website.
Teams of volunteers do outreach trips, such as visiting schools in the aldeas during the school season (February 15 to November 15). “We do the Children Health Identification Program (CHIP) program,” said Harrison. Four times a year, he said, they visit about 2,000 children in 25 schools, monitoring their growth, development and well-being. “CHIP also allows us to identify children with medical or developmental difficulties, and refer them along to our clinic for evaluation and treatment,” according to the PFCI website.
Of course, they never go empty-handed. “The Chortí way is to take a gift. You always have to give something,” said Harrison. “And they always have a gift for us—chickens, bananas, or the children will dance for us or do a show.” Teachers receive a computer disk containing photos of the children, which can be printed for each child’s school photo.
Help Make a Difference
For a grassroots organization, Paramedics for Children has done well, persisting for more than 20 years. It survived the Hurricane Mitch era and what Harrison refers to as the “Ambulance Age.” PCFI is making a real difference with Clinica La Esperanza. The charity has morphed from an entrepreneurial seat-of-the-pants effort, and is now more established and stable, with a dedicated board of directors and business advisors. A modern website, accessible at www.pfci.org, links it to the world.
Now, the future of the organization relies on a few things: First, said Harrison, is bolstering the donor base and drawing in a new generation of donors. “We’ve got to reach the millennials,” said Harrison, “and teach them how to give.”
He’s noticed that younger people often have a short attention span and not much money—but they love adventure. So, Paramedics for Children has developed a “super-supporter” category for donors who commit to making a modest donation ($20–$25 per month) through a credit card.
“Every penny will go against your stay for your first mission to Honduras, including room and board in the hacienda,” he said. “If I can get a kid to put $25 a month in for 8 or 12 months, they’ll have their down payment to get to work in the clinic and be involved.”
Second, with many traditional sources of income tapped out, Morton is looking for corporate donors or anyone interested in grants.
Third: beanie babies! With so many children passing through the clinic each month, said Morton, “we’re getting beanie babies or small stuffed animals. The children are usually scared. So, Rodger will take the stuffed animals and make ’em talk. He calms them down so they won’t be so scared.”
Paramedics for Children will have a booth at the upcoming 2018 EMS Today Conference and Exposition, which will be held February 21–23 in Charlotte, N.C. Anyone traveling to the show is encouraged to bring a beanie baby or two. Wander over to their booth and stay to visit awhile with the people making a difference in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. Maybe Rodger Harrison, Roz Morton or one of the others will draw you in and you’ll soon experience the volunteer adventure of a lifetime.