Local medical missions to Honduras started in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated what was already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The goodwill might have ebbed with the last of the flooding and mudslides. But it didn't.
Instead, the humanitarian effort unleashed by a powerful storm and one Northern Virginia doctor's act of charity continues to grow, thanks to health care workers from Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington and others throughout the region.
A team of 53 medical specialists and volunteers -- the largest medical mission to Honduras from a single hospital, according to the American Red Cross -- today is completing its third annual trip to the country, where one-fourth of the population has no access to health care.
After setting up clinics in the slums of the capital, Tegucigalpa, the visitors sutured wounds, handed out thousands of pairs of glasses, administered drugs and gave hope to thousands of people who rose before dawn and dressed in their finest to be seen by a physician -- some for the first time.
Coordinating the missions is Barry Byer, chief of family practice at Virginia Hospital Center and president and co-founder of CrossLink International, a Falls Church nonprofit organization that collects surplus pharmaceuticals and equipment for distribution overseas. In addition to health practitioners, Byer calls on accountants, lawyers, musicians and others willing to volunteer their time, pay their way and be on their feet 18 hours a day helping the needy.
This year, the team expected to treat 4,000 primary care patients, perform at least 85 surgeries, distribute more than $750,000 worth of mostly donated drugs and medical supplies, and fit 4,000 people with eyewear . . . all in about a week.
James Cole, president and CEO of the Arlington hospital, went on the 2000 mission and was assigned to the team that assists with eyeglasses. An elderly woman, given new lenses, made a lasting impression.
"She'd brought her Bible with her," Cole said. "She hadn't been able to read it in years. After we gave her glasses, she sat there reading and crying. That's an experience that's hard to comprehend in this country. It makes you realize how blessed we are."
As the program has grown, so have the resources. This year's team for the first time included physical therapists, an optometrist and two drug company representatives. Donations have soared to three times what was shipped in 2000. (Last year's mission was canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks.)
Word spreads quickly when the U.S. doctors arrive. Crowds begin lining up at the clinics at 4 a.m. to be treated for everything from football-size tumors to asthma to fungal skin infections. The team brings along equipment such as walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Byer plans to reach as many needy Hondurans as possible in a short visit each year.
"You might say, 'What's the big deal?' " Byer said by phone last week from Tegucigalpa. "But we just saw an 8-year-old with spastic paralysis who couldn't walk or sit up. He'd been spending all his time on the floor. The wheelchair for him was a dramatic change. It brought us all to tears."