Daily Diary: Visit to Guatemala by Pat Murphy, former Fundraising Director

In May 2009  Pat Murphy, our Director of Fundraising at that time, visited our Hopices in Guatemala and Honduras. This is her daily diary....

Monday 11th May
After a 4am start and three flights I arrived in a very hot sticky San Pedro Sula airport. A search of my luggage in Manchester left me minus a passport for a few worrying minutes and a slight delay getting into Miami led to an Olympic sprint through Miami airport, but I landed otherwise unscarred. With swine flu being at its height and the country not being a million miles from Mexico, it was masks and questionnaires all the way. However, Cath O'Leary was waiting for me on the other side of Customs and once my luggage had been stored safely in the Jospice van (which incidentally was purchased with money raised by a special appeal to our supporters a couple of years ago and is invaluable) it was directly to a local high spot for a bite to eat and a drink.

I wondered - after 22 hours of travel - if I could face food, but it did taste remarkable good and a good chill out was what was needed. Then it was back to the house where Cath lives. This was the original hospice - no luxuries here, only running cold water and stone floors, but a comfortable bed and a great welcome.

Tuesday 12th May
Once I had my body clock tuned into Honduran time, it was up with the lark for an early morning visit to the hospice. One of the first things I learnt was you do not go out alone, certainly at night and not really during the day, as theft is rife and shootings not uncommon. With this knowledge I was happy I had travelled without any jewellery and a £3 watch I had purchased in Hong Kong about 20 years ago. I was collected shortly after 8am and taken to the hospice for a quick tour around, introductions to the staff and patients and the first sight of how spartan the facilities really are.

The hospice is a three sided breeze block building with a corrugated iron roof; this is the second roof on the 19 year old building, the first having been replaced about 5 or 6 years ago. The shared wards are basic to say the least, the single rooms austere and the medicine trolley had seen better days, but had been covered in sticky backed plastic to smarten it up and the kitchen looked like something from a war time film. The staff, however, were smart, happy and their uniforms were pristine. This was interesting, as although the laundry had two washing machines, a lot of the washing was done by hand using a scrubbing board.
The patients' conditions range from long term illnesses such as Alzheimer's, to people with cancer, TB, AIDS-related illnesses and a paraplegic who had been shot. Although they were being cared for in the most basic of conditions, they were incredibly well looked after, well fed and loved. The overwhelming sense that they belonged somewhere and how grateful they were for the care Jospice offered came through so very much. The Jospice office has computers and fax, but no internet - the telephone lines sometimes get stolen and the copper sold!

After a lunch of fried spaghetti and beetroot, we called at the home of Rocio, the secretary at the hospice, to make use of her internet but had no luck. Her computer did not talk to AOL. Then a quick drive through the neighbourhood. The area surrounding the hospice is incredibly poor and many people live in small wooden shacks, with a little bit of corrugated iron roofing. They cook, eat, sit and wash outside the hut and share one tap between who knows how many for their water supply.

The hospice is built on land owned by the St Vincent de Paul Society. The priest who invited and persuaded Father O'Leary that a hospice was needed also has opened an old people's home, a children's home and a school on the land. Father Antonio Quetglas, the founder of Hospice Honduras and founder of OSOVI, is now 78 and living in Tegucigalpa, the capital. However, he was visiting the area and Cath and I met up with him later that afternoon. Still a very active man and quite a charismatic individual, it was most interesting to discuss his work and that of Jospice ,and how they worked side by side.

Before my visit to Honduras, I had asked Cath to make contact with the local Rotary Club, as I felt there would be some support forthcoming from this source. At 6pm we galloped off to the Sula Hotel to meet with Alex Errazo. He spoke perfect English, having lived for 8 years in Cambridge and is the Community Chairman of the San Pedro Club. He was very forthcoming and said he felt that Rotary could offer financial and hands-on support for our work. Also. There might be more assistance through the friendship links they have. We discussed our work at length and I felt it was a very productive meeting. He invited us both to the full meeting of the Club the following evening to meet other members. At some stage after this we arrived home, to eat and find much needed bed.

Wednesday 13th May
Thinking I had slept until 8.25am, my immediate thought was I was supposed to phone the hospice to arrange for my lift before 8am. However, up, showered and dressed very quickly, only to find I had looked at my watch upside down, and it was in fact 4.35am. A fairly leisurely couple of hours after that catching up with my reading, but got to the hospice in good time, as we were galloping off to the local state hospital "Hospital Mario Catherino Rivas". The queues outside for the A&E department were endless, having started at 5am. We headed towards the main referral unit including the Emergency Room, Observation ward, Laboratory, Women & Men's Medical & Surgical wards, Gynaecology and Maternity unit. Cath had a number of staff to talk to regarding referrals to the hospice. I also had introductions to Nurse-in-Charge Delia and Dr Enrique Jovel, the paediatric specialist. We may think our hospitals are in poor condition, but this one was very sparse and very little privacy or dignity given to patients in any areas.

Then after a quick tour of an area just outside the city, where expensive residential villas overlook the shanty town where the living conditions are unbelievably hard, it was back to the hospice for Mass celebrated by Fr Ramon. This was a belated Mothers' Day celebration, as the hospice had been closed to visitors earlier in the week owing to the outbreak of swine flu at the local hospital. The Mass was attended by patients, families and students from the local school. It was incredible how smart, clean and tidy the students were, considering the living conditions that local people have. They were exceptionally well behaved, and led the music. I stood next to a paraplegic man, lying on a bed who couldn't even able to put his hand out for the sign of peace. After Mass and introductions all round, I heard how very impressed the students were - not by my camera or camcorder, but my £3 watch!

After Mass we went into the dining room/lounge for prayers, and patients had lunch. On our way back from the hospital, we had bought a cake (Costco style) to celebrate Mothers' Day. After lunch, I was left with the clinical psychologist Sandra Maldonado and Doctor to attend the self help group, as Cath had to go and sort my air ticket to Guatemala. Both of these staff were leading the self help group for the afternoon. There was a good number attending, family of patients and former patients and also a number of children. It was amazing the delight that a digital camera bought to the children, who commandeered it for best part of the session and actually took some decent photos. Cath had been my translator up until now (quite a job) but the psychologist had quite a good command of English also and led a short session whereby I told everyone a little about Jospice in Liverpool and the area where we lived. When asked if they had any questions for me, I was inundated. The wanted to know everything from was Liverpool a port, had I met the Beatles and what illnesses did patients suffer from who were admitted to Jospice in Liverpool. Tremendous sympathy was shown when they heard that a number of our patients had various forms of cancer. After this session, childrens' exercise books which had been donated were given to the children or their families to take home and patients could talk individually to the staff. The big event of the afternoon, of course, was the celebration cake. The joy that cake brought to so many was unbelievable. A simple slice of fairly tasteless sponge cake was an incredible treat.

After this session, we managed to get a half hour break and found I was having to go via El Salvador the following day to get to Guatemala and, yes, another morning to get up at 4.10am. Home, a quick snack and off to the Rotary Club meeting in the Hotel Copantyl. Here we met a number of members from neighbouring clubs, who were attending the meeting specially to hear the "first lady" give a presentation. However, she was ill and her sister did the honours. We also met members from the Club's friendship links in the USA and hopefully all these links will be helpful in the future in gaining support for our projects. Home for a late night meal, but my thoughts were with the early morning start.

Thursday 14th May
Arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and in need of a cup of coffee. It was interesting when I had to explain to a Honduran why I had 70 Jospice toys in my luggage, including pigs - I think I was just dismissed as an English eccentric. Anyway, after two uneventful short flights, Paty Santos was waiting for me in excitable mood. We had met at the end of last year, when she visited us in Liverpool and it was good to renew contact. She also speaks good English. However, within 5 minutes we were nearly arrested! What with our excitement and translations. We managed to drive through a red light and no less than three lots of police swarmed on us. Anyway, after lots of waving of arms and explanations (mainly pointing at me) we managed to get off lightly and went to savour the delights of a Guatemalan breakfast. An interesting combination of beans, banana, eggs, and some good bread.
After this, I checked into my hotel in Antigua, a lovely old town, and we went to an education day on HIV awareness that the hospice was organising at a local restaurant which had handed their facilities over for use on the day. It was in a family-run hotel and their generous hospitality was wonderful. The education day is one of the services given by Jospice Guatemala - a 30 minute talk, then an option for blood tests. These were being done on the premises, samples taken back to the lab at the hospice and results ready the following day. Elena Clavitos, the manager of Jospice Guatemala, was organising the day and she, too, gave me a great welcome.

We had a very interesting day, meeting many staff and visitors and then accepting the donations and gifts that those attending the awareness day gave to the hospice. These ranged form cash to clothing, rice and tinned food. Then I did what I know best and went around the local streets with a collecting box. Afterwards, we headed to the former Dominican convent of Santa Dominica, which has now been converted to a hotel, for a well-earned drink and a quick snack. The rest of the evening was much more leisurely.

Friday 15th May
I was being collected from my hotel at 9am, but being in the mode of early mornings, I was wide awake by 7am. As Paty & the staff at the hospice were insistent that I was their guest, I felt I needed to find somewhere for a coffee and some breakfast but it had to be an establishment that would take either US$ or a credit card. Having vowed some 20 years ago never to darken the doors of a Burger King by 8am I was propped up in just that establishment with coffee and whatever constitutes an egg muffin "Guatemalan style" On the dot of 9am, Paty appeared in the hospice van and immediately felt I needed more sustenance. However, over a pot of coffee, we managed to have a very good catch up on the work they do, the difficulties they are facing over government funding and I learned that the childrens' centre is now nearly at full capacity with 72 children. It was good to have this conversation, as once we got to the centre I knew we would be otherwise occupied.

We then headed to a centre that had been hired for the day, where a bereavement/self help group was meeting. I was very lucky as they were finishing their day with the equivalent of our Light up a Life service. This was possibly the most moving and emotional part of my trip. Everyone filing out of the room with a lighted red candle to an area of rough ground. There they stood around a chalked ribbon and prayed for their loved ones. Finally the candles were placed around the ribbon, making the shape of the red crossed ribbon that many people wear on Worlds Aids Day. I was invited to put the final candle in place.

Afterwards, Paty and Elena explained the reason for my visit and asked if anyone wanted to come and talk to me. It appeared all 57 attending did and wanted to tell me how Jospice had helped them through the most difficult time of their lives. One lady with 10 children, several of them with her, told me that her husband had recently died. Another lady and her daughter told how her family had disowned her because her husband had died of an AIDS-related illness - Jospice had been her only friends since. Similar stories continued, they were amazing and so sad.

After this exhausting session, it was off to visit the hospice and to see the excellent facilities they have there. A real credit to the work they all have done and to Jospice. I saw the dental surgery, laboratories, storage, a little boy having his chemotherapy and final met the 72 orphan children who live in Hospicio San Jose. All these children have either lost their parents or have been abandoned and are HIV positive. With the drugs they are supplied with they look incredibly healthy, but that could change very easily if they did not have access to the vital drugs they are given.

The children are split into age groups - Pre School, 6-9, etc, and I was taken around each group. It was great to see how well they all looked - well dressed, doing homework, art and crafts, or the little ones watching cartoons. However, once I sat on the floor with them I seemed to be the play object! Then yet more food was rolled out in one of the offices for us and then we were back to continue the tour and have another session with the children. Now this is where I learnt a cheap watch will always let you down. The strap broke on mine and although the staff in the office spent a large part of the afternoon trying to repair it, I had to spend the rest of my trip carrying it in my pocket. A waste of time really, as it was also beginning to lose time as well. By this time, the numerous little Jospice toys had been distributed and there was great excitement all round.

I also met Jose Rosas, who is the President of the Hospice and is a member of a family which has a foundation trust that has supported the hospice very generously. In fact they completed funding for the building of the small chapel and are funding a genetics centre being built on the land across the centre. Suddenly it was nearly 8pm; children were tidying the communal dining area and getting ready for bed. Jose, who again could speak perfect English, invited, Paty, Elena and me for dinner. Elena sadly could not join us, as she was very behind with her work, but the three of us enjoyed a very relaxed dinner in a lovely restaurant. It was great to join two people with the same common cause and to feel so relaxed and at home with them. Sadly the evening had to come to a close and - bearing in mind that I had another 4am alarm for my flight back to San Pedro - Paty decided to stay over at my hotel, otherwise she would have spend most of the night driving around the capital.

Saturday 16th May
Up with the lark, and I spent an extra couple of minutes in the shower, knowing I would be showering in cold water once I was back in Honduras. We then had a 40 minute drive to the airport and I felt sad leaving what appeared to be a very pleasant country, lovely people and an incredible centre in the name of Jospice. This time I wasn't so lucky at Customs and had some of my medication taken off me. I argued to no avail, but learnt afterwards a small cash bribe would have done the trick. I was back into San Pedro not long after 10am and again was collected by Cath. We managed to pull back a little today and had a leisurely lunch, a quick look at the market stalls, a trip to the hospice and then it was 6pm vigil Mass at the Cathedral. In all honesty, the place not a good example to the Catholic Church as architecture goes - a 1960s typical South American building, badly in need of a lick of paint. A temperature of over 100 degrees, a 25 minute sermon on what sounded like hell fire and brimstone with arms waving around - and a couple of dogs wandering around the church. Saturday night out was under the local water tank at the local "corner store" to watch two local football teams fight it out on TV. A bottle of beer was followed by a coke.

Sunday 17th May
A quieter day, with a visit to the beach, just over an hour's drive away. A good chance to relax, read and swim. We did, however, need to be back home for 5pm to quickly pack a bag, and drive up to Morazan, about 75 miles away. It was either go up this evening or leave at 5.30am the following morning! This area is where the first Jospice clinic was established in 1976. It is a real success story and proof what a community, no matter how poor, can do working together. We met up with some long-established friends of Jospice, Belen and her husband Carlos, who gave us most generous hospitality for two nights. We had dinner with them and Dr Edilio and his wife and mother.

The village was celebrating one of the many feasts - Our Lady of the Destitute (very appropriate) - and because of this, there was a visiting fair in town and the usual celebrations, including a local talent show. On the way in we met the local Mayor who gave us a very warm welcome.

Monday 18th May
As ever up bright and early and arrived at the Jospice clinic in Morazan. We got to the clinic just before 8am. As I mentioned earlier this was the original clinic, opened in 1976. A large sparse room with old benches served as the waiting area, with a large notice board boasting the old Jospice logo, a rather poor photo of Father O'Leary (made a mental note to send a better one) and a small photo of Filomena O'Leary. The offices and consulting rooms were also basic, but the staff were all happy and, once again, appeared delighted to meet me. I was then taken over to the mother and baby unit where I met Lilian Torres (aged 40) and her 5-hour-old baby boy. She had been leader of the Jospice-run food station in Barrio Lempira in the 1980's and 90s She was full of praise for the care she had received before and during the birth of her baby. The whole centre was very impressive and gives pre and post natal care to mothers and babies. All "straightforward" births in the area take place here, with the mother encouraged or taken to hospital for C-sections, breach or other more complicated births. A real success story for the local community and funded by public health.

We then went out on a clinic and vaccination round in Las Sierritas with Nurse Maria Ester and Ronald the health promoter. First, we stocked up with bottled water and then we were away into the outback. We parked the van by the local school and had to walk to try and find the14 children on the list to be vaccinated. The roads were just dirt tracks and were all up hill, so the vehicle would not take them. It was now I started cursing the official at the airport who had taken my inhaler away! Uphill and hot. The poverty was again striking and we met many families living in the poorest of conditions, but truly happy to see Cath and staff to vaccinate the young children. Some of the shacks had basic furniture - just a couple of mattresses, maybe a hammock, a few plastic garden chair and several dozen carrier bags containing their worldly possessions. All cooking eating and washing is done outside. Yet they are very proud and made us most welcome. All loved having photos taken and one young Mum ran indoor to put her shoes on (flip flops) as she had to be dressed for the photo. At another home where we called, a little lad was running around with no clothes on but the moment he saw us, he ran off and appeared a few seconds later in an old pair of shorts. We managed to find 11 out of the 14 children for vaccination, which was a pretty good day.

Once we were back at the health centre we dropped the staff off and went to visit some of Cath's friends, Diane and Mario's family. Cath is known and well respected by all the locals and they all treat her like one of the family. After introductions all round and a welcome drink, we headed back to Balen's house for lunch and a siesta. Those 40 winks were very much needed. We had to be back at the clinic before 5pm, as a Village reception was being laid on because of our visit.

I had another good tour of the maternity unit where I learned a Mother had just been driven off to hospital because her labour had become complicated. Then the waiting room of the centre was suddenly festooned with balloons, there were chairs and tables and we were ushered to top table. Quite funny as I cannot speak a word of Spanish. However, Cath - as ever - did a brilliant job of translating, especially my short speech. Many people connected with the work of Jospice came to this reception, medical and political representatives, and spoke warmly of Jospice, Father O'Leary, Filomema and Cath. Afterwards, supper was laid on and we were given a gift of coffee and hen's eggs!

On the way back from the reception, we nearly tripped over an internet café and we both rushed in. I managed to get onto AOL and found some of the 60+ e-mails waiting for me. From there we found a bar that looked rather like a barn with a few plastic tables and chairs and spent a pleasant hour or so with some Honduran beer, putting the world to rights. I guess we hit the hay before midnight, but, of course, we had another clinic round the following morning, which meant only a 6.45am alarm call!

Tuesday 19th May
Another day and another early start, this time we were going to the clinic in Noeva Esperanza that was established in the name of Jospice in 2001. It was only about 7 miles, but necessitated driving through three rivers. Again the van was invaluable. Pretty hairy going across the river that had once had a bridge. I could see the devastation that hurricane Mitch had done in 1998 and the bridge that had never been replaced.

Again a very basic patient area and then we were shown into what I can only describe as a barbaric dental room. With very few facilities and no money for drugs, dental care is very basic. If you have toothache, you have the tooth out. At least they had anaesthetic for that. A lady who had been in pain was in the chair, awaiting an extraction. Tooth pulled - thank you very much, not even a glass of water or an antiseptic mouth wash - we need to do something here. We went through to the next room and watched a four week old baby being nebulised, which was good and something we can be proud of, providing equipment such as this. Then - home from home - they were having an unannounced health inspection by a visiting delegation from the capital Tegucigalpa - these inspectors get everywhere. Had a good chat with the inspector and she appeared to be very happy. There seems to be great concern in the clinic that there is an outbreak of Chagas & Leishmanitis diseases, and maps were being marked of the areas where there had been outbreaks.

We then visited Dr Luis Bricenio's clinic for a chat on the way back. He cooks Christmas dinner every year for the patients and was the first Honduran health ministry doctor sent to Morazan. He informed us that there should be more funding for dentistry in the pipeline. A quick trip back to Belen's to collect our bags and then the drive back to San Pedro Sula to start packing for the trip home.

We headed out with Cath's neighbours Calin, who is also the maintenance guy at the hospice, his wife Hilda and daughter Gabriella, to get some dinner at about 9pm. Again a hot humid evening and as we sat outside, I did wonder how long would it be, once I got home ,before I could sit outside to eat again!

Wednesday 20th May
Up at a now familiar time of 4am, but this time, it was a quick shower, pack the last minute things into my case and Calin arrived in the hospice van to take me for the short drive to San Pedro Sula airport for my three flights back to Manchester.

With having seen, toured and discussed so much, two of my flights were spent sorting and listing photographs and writing notes. One small world, 6,500 miles away from home, but the social inadequacies are indescribable. All four projects I saw, the bedded unit in San Pedro, the lovely centre for children and adult patients in Guatemala and the clinics in Morazan and Noeva Esperantza all so different, but each one of them, desperately in need. They certainly need our help, there is no question about that. Even just a little really goes such a long way and I cannot describe how grateful the people are.

Home by 9.30am on the Thursday morning, wide awake and I have now been reunited with a decent watch and my gold chain - I felt very lost without them.

But this was 10 days that changed my life. Please help us to continue to support these people to make at least some small change in their lives. I say again, just a little goes such a long way!