Forward Focus: Michigan doctors, nurses treat some of the world's poorest in Honduras

Josh Veenstra, seen at right, is an orthopedic resident in Kalamazoo, who joined his parents, Mark, left, and Becky, center, Veentra on one of the mission trips to Honduras. (WWMT/Contributed)

Retired orthopedic surgeon Mark Veenstra and his wife, Becky, of Kalamazoo, have become expert packers. Spread out on their living room floor one recent afternoon were suitcases filled with medical devices, supplies and labels.

“We’re just trying to get a few last-minute items there,” Becky Veenstra said. “It’s easier to do it here and bring it with you than to try to do it there.”

For eight weeks a year, they leave their home in Kalamazoo and move into their second home in Honduras. They also invite other doctors, nurses and medical staff to join them, and, together, they treat some of the world’s poorest people. Mark Veenstra estimates that his teams have performed more than 2,000 surgeries.

“I do a lot of knee surgery, shoulder surgery, we see a lot of old fractures that healed wrong or may be infected,” Mark Veenstra said.

They perform the procedures in a clinic in Gracias, Honduras, which has taken them more than two decades to build. The clinic has two operating rooms, a recovery room and a warehouse for supplies. Some patients travel for hours, from hundreds of miles away, just to see the doctors from West Michigan.

Plastic surgeon Raghu Elluru has gone on the trip nine times.

“It’s hard to remember sometimes that there are people out there who have a lot less than you do,” Elluru said. “I know it seems selfless, but I get a lot more than I give. It’s incredibly rewarding and gratifying to be able to serve those people and know that you’re making a meaningful difference in their ability to survive.”

Recovery nurse Jan DeBoer, of Portage, agrees. Since 2000, she’s volunteered four weeks of personal vacation time and thousands of dollars of her own money to help care for Honduran patients after surgery.

“They’re much more stoic than we are,” DeBoer said. "They don’t require as much pain medication as we do. They’re ever so much more grateful for everything you do for them. There’s a great sense of teamwork and making do with what you have.”

In the mid-90s, Veenstra pioneered the Honduras effort, along with sponsorship from the Luke Society, an interdenominational organization of Christian health and business professionals dedicated to medical missions. Today, he and his wife coordinate what’s become one of the most highly sought-after mission trips in Michigan, with a waiting list of 250 names.

“A country like Honduras just doesn’t have those resources and if volunteer groups didn’t come and help them, they would be in an even worse situation than they are now,” Mark Veenstra said.

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