WETHERSFIELD – The Feb. 3 opening of a health clinic in Honduras by three Connecticut women was the result of three revelations the women experienced.
For dentist Mary Pergiovanni, the eye-opener was eating a $16 English muffin in a posh Washington, D.C., restaurant and then almost tripping over a homeless man on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. “Something just has to change,” she told herself.
For her friend and fellow social action committee member at Corpus Christi Church, Nancy Kiely, a nurse at Hebrew Health Care, it was witnessing poverty and affluence elbow to elbow in Honduras, where she adopted a child in the 1980s. “It really bothered me, the inequities,” she said.
And for Debbie Collier of Windsor, a social worker at St. Francis Hospital’s emergency department, who also had adopted children from Honduras, it was going to Honduras with Dr. Pergiovanni and Mrs. Kiely and catching their passion. “When you come back to this country, it kind of hits you in the face,” she said.
Since 1997, Dr. Pergiovanni and Mrs. Kiely have been going yearly to Honduras on weeklong medical and dental “brigades,” with Mrs. Collier joining them in 2008 and thereafter. In 2013, they met Peggy Stranges, a nurse living on the Bay Island of Roatan, Honduras, who told them about a health clinic she had started there in 2001.
“After we met Peggy, we knew that this is what we needed to do,” Mrs. Kiely said.
They chose the village of Monte de los Olivos, in the city of El Progreso. The 29 families in the poor village used to live by a landfill, which was their source of food. The village is within walking distance of four or five other villages totaling about 5,000 people. Access to health care was scant.
“When these people have any other health care, for instance the hospital, they have to bring everything with them – gloves, sutures, everything the doctor might need to treat them. So obviously it’s cost prohibitive for them, so they just don’t get health care,” Mrs. Collier said.
Thanks to the grand opening of Clinica la Amistad (Friendship Clinic), that is already beginning to change. On that first day, 26 people visited the clinic for treatment. Less than a month later, on March 2, 67 people were treated. Ailments included malnutrition, parasites, respiratory problems, diabetes, hypertension, urinary tract infections, asthma, coughs/cold/flu, fungal infections and gastrointestinal issues.
Dr. Pergiovanni recalled seeing a man hobbling down the street to the clinic. “All he got was ibuprofen, and the next day when we saw him, he didn’t have to have that stick. He was thankful,” she said.
Clinica la Amistad is housed in a former community center in Monte de los Olivos (Mount of Olives). The cost to convert the space was about $4,000, money raised through Corpus Christi’s parishioners and private donations. A nonprofit foundation, Little Friends International, started by Dr. Pergiovanni and her husband, pays for medications and two salaries.
“The focus was to build from within, so that when we’re no longer there it will be self-sustaining,” said Mrs. Collier. Toward that end, the clinic is staffed fully by Hondurans, who operate it year-round. For now, it is open two days a week.
“We are charging each person who comes to the clinic to be seen 15 lempiras, which is less than a dollar, not even 75 cents,” Mrs. Kiely said. “That covers their visit and also any medications that they get, so it’s very cheap, cheaper than any other health care source they can use in the area.”
Mrs. Collier said, “What we’ve found in the past, when we’ve done the brigades for the medical missions, is that the word gets out and they will fill a truck with all the people from the village, or as many as they can fit, and truck them in for health care.”
Mrs. Kiely said the Honduran people have helped her more than she’s helped them. “I think that they can teach us something. I think they can teach us what is most important in life, and a lot of them are very faith-filled; they have very strong faith; so maybe that’s what we all need to learn from them.”
Mrs. Collier said the Honduran people they treat also are loving and welcoming. She said, “I remember one of them said to me something like, ‘God has given you such a kind heart’; and that was for nothing. I hadn’t given her a thing; we had just been walking around and children come up and hug you.”
Dr. Pergiovanni said, “The adults, too; it’s just very humbling.”
Mrs. Collier continued, “And it amazes me the faith that they have, given the conditions they’ve lived in. In this village they had no homes three years ago; they were living in shacks – barely. They had tarps over the roofs. It was just horrific.”
Dr. Pergiovanni recalled accompanying a doctor to the home of a little girl who was having trouble breathing. They arrived at the shack with medicine, but the mother had left to gather wood. The little girl opened the door a crack, and Dr. Perviovanni got a glimpse inside.
“The floor was dirt. The room was empty, and it had a plastic chair, and on the chair was a pot and I couldn’t see what was in it, but there were two corncobs and they had been chewed but not all the way,” she said. There were no beds. There was no stove. “And so that never fails to get me,” she said. “A stranger has to come and give your kid medicine.”
Mrs. Kiely said sustaining costs to operate the clinic will be about $30,000 per year. Donations may be sent to Corpus Christi Social Action Committee, 84 Somerset St., Wethersfield, CT 06109 or to Little Friends International, 5 Holstein Lane, Portland, CT 06480.