[Kyle Lavin is an MD/MPH student at UNC.]
This year was scheduled to be the sixth trip of the Honduran Health Alliance. HHA is a women’s health organization composed of rising 2nd and 4th year med students, public health students, and UNC faculty members. HHA strives to provide public health education as well as cervical cancer screening to women in rural parts of southern Honduras.
The trip was planned for June 28 to July 19. On Sunday, July 5, around the time our attending physicians were supposed to be landing in Tegucigalpa, my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Beat Steiner. “Yes, you did see that correctly. I’m calling from my home phone. All of the flights into Tegucigalpa have been cancelled.” The political unrest from the military coup of the Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, and the subsequent protests that ensued, had made Honduras an unsafe destination.
The fact that the doctors would not be able to get to Honduras created a nearly impossible barrier for the group to overcome. No doctors meant no clinic. Although the doctors were extremely invested in doing everything in their power to come down, we had to accept the fact that there was no way for them to safely make it to Honduras.
The co-leaders threw around different ideas about how to keep the trip going without the doctors. We thought about trying to postpone the clinic until some of the political unrest had passed. We thought about the possibility of running the clinic as students, without an attending, and only providing basic services for the women. We even contacted local physicians to see if anyone might be able to come help us run the clinic for a week. That plan nearly worked, too, since we found a local doctor agree to help. But later that evening we received a call from him saying his uncle had had a heart attack and he wouldn’t be able to come. Even our most creative and devoted efforts found no resolution. After hours of conversations amongst ourselves and with administrators at UNC, we were forced to make the painful decision to end the trip.
The hardest part about the decision was knowing we would be letting people down, both the students, who were with us and had invested so much time and effort as well as the women who were counting on us for yearly medical care. I felt like I was letting down my co-leaders by not being able to find a way to make the clinic continue. I also felt like I was letting down the organization. As a leader of the organization, I felt that I was responsible for the first “failure” in the 6 years HHA had been coming to Honduras. All of these feelings overwhelmed me and left me with a feeling of emptiness and guilt that did not resolve quickly.
Nonetheless, looking back on the decision, it is clear that we had no other course of action. When talking with the other group leaders, as well as faculty at UNC, the question we kept asking ourselves was; given the uncertainty and volatility of the situation, was it really worth putting 15 students in danger in order to follow through with completing our agenda for the trip? Although we were in no acute danger, the tenuousness of the situation created what we felt like was a potentially unsafe environment.
In making the decision to cut short our trip, we were forced to give up on something that we had spent an entire year planning. 1000’s of emails, 100’s of meetings and endless anxiety over trying to organize the perfect trip. The fact that we were unable to accomplish our goals is something that will continue to be a disappointment for me for the rest of my life. However, I learned a great deal from the experience, and this trip reinforced the fact that the right decision can often be the hardest one to make.