Posted on January 4, 2012

Honduras Day 5: Let The Story Tell Itself

When we arrived at the clinic this morning, the crowd outside the door had doubled in size from our first day here. The Honduran news media had been here to ask us questions the day before yesterday, and as I interview the patients, we hear more and more that they found out about the clinic from the newscast on Monday night. Of the fifteen percent or so who have access to electricity, I wonder how many of those homes have a television? The media men had arrived with only hand-held video cameras, but had been well dressed. Their clean jeans and trimmed haircuts stood out to me because I have become accustomed to seeing the everyday-Honduras, the loose housedresses with a carefully-tied ruffled apron worn by the women, the large white cowboy hats and shirts tucked into belted-workpants worn by the men. Everything fraying around the edges. When the post-op patients return for follow-up visits, we recognize them by their outfit because it is the same one we have seen for three days in a row. And yet, they take pride in their appearance. They take care of their clothing and possessions the best that they can. While it all looks worn out and dirty, nothing here looks like it has been neglected out of laziness. Even the shacks we pass along the way have dusty kindling wood stacked neatly beside them. With the exception of the overwhelming trash and litter problem, and maybe the piles of bricks and cinderblocks around all of the unfinished shacks, it appears that people here work hard to take care of what little they do have.

On the street leading from our hotel to the Hospital San Lorenzo, there is a house with a sign out front advertising “clothing in American fashion.” Every time we drive past, I catch a glimpse of a charicature-ish knock-off of a Hollister outfit. Something about it is off– the stripes are too pronounced, the seagull is a little too big, the jeans just aren’t quite right– I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I know that a red-blooded American kid would never wear it. It’s obvious though that America is looked up to and that they are fascinated by us. When I walk through the clinic and say “buenas dias” to a family in passing, the mother will often pull her beautiful, young, dark-eyed daughter close and tell her “look, look, see she has blue eyes! and blonde hair!” And now that we have two days worth of surgeries completed (so, roughly forty recipients returning for post-op follow-ups), the gratitude of those who’ve been operated on is beginning to overflow over the dam. As I walked into one of the rooms to get my camera equipment, a middle-aged man in a tan shirt and tan workpants grabs my hand. His eye is sunken and bloody, and it’s clear that he is a post-op patient. He smiles at me and begins to thank me. I can see that his other eye is beginning to water as he thanks Dios for us, and begins to pray that Dios blesses us with more knowledge so that we can continue to help the people here. I am stopped in my tracks by this man’s emotion, and wishing that one of the eye surgeons were next to me to take the credit. Somebody offers to take my camera and get a picture of us, and the man in the tan shirt and pants stands up next to me and hugs my shoulders tightly. I catch the scent of his body odor, and later I can still smell it in my hair and on my shirt. I take out my camera and look at the picture of us, and even with his post-surgery swelling I can see the kindness in the crinkles around his eyes, the tears that hover on his bottom eyelid, and the closed-mouth smile that holds back another stream of grateful praise.

And that was before we even began the day.

We asked Eusebio, one of the young Honduran translators, to help us find people in the crowd who would be willing to answer a few questions on camera. Shortly, he and Adam bring back a grandmotherly woman with thick grey hair, followed from a distance by her granddaughter. As I’m watching them lead her up to the bench and camera, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t pick the fieldworker whose cataract is so developed that it looks like someone painted whiteout on his eyeball. He even had one of those big white cowboy hats on. He was the perfect candidate to show people back home. I mean, it’s not that restoring vision to grandmothers isn’t a wonderful thing…but wouldn’t the people who give us money, and who know that we can only provide 100 surgeries total, prefer to see their dollars go to restoring vision to someone who isn’t already retired? Someone who can still contribute to the entire family? Cataract removal for that person isn’t so much a nicety as it is a necessity. At that moment I also noted that, of course, the only Honduran in the entire crowd to actually own a cell phone was now standing directly in view of our video camera. I wanted to shoo him away, and then get a few of the people who had amputated legs to fill in his place. Aware that this is exactly how the big news media skews the truth, I tried to stuff down my urges to control and orchestrate the picture in front of us.

Even at risk of turning off potential donors, we were here to capture the whole picture, not just the sensational or sympathetic parts of it. Inevitably, the real story always turns out better than the one I try to orchestrate anyways.

The grandmother with thick grey hair sees me and immediately wraps me into her arms. She is a good foot shorter than I am so she lays her head on my chest. She is plump and soft, and I feel like I’m being hugged by my own gramma. She’s wearing large, unfashionable sunglasses and I see tears begin to run down her cheeks from underneath them. We sit her down on the bench with Dr. Ron David, and the shy young girl sits down on the other side. I begin asking her the routine interview questions, and she tells us that prior to this surgery she was completely blind. She lived with her daughter and her two granddaughters, who cared for her. Then she tells us that a few months ago, the girls’ mother died suddenly from a brain tumor. She was the only one left, struggling to care for the little girls. She is weeping now. Then she begins thanking Dios for us, and is holding onto Dr. David’s hand. I ask her what would have happened to the girls if she had not had this surgery, and she begins weeping again. “Unspeakable things.” I do not pry further. And I do not ask her the standard interview question “how has this surgery changed or improved your life” because it is obvious.