Health Care Denied, Time and Energy Wasted as Stalling and Stonewalling Stop Nurse Peggy from Treating Roatan’s Needy
BY JEFF STRATTON
Back in late March, this blog reported that the upstairs wing of Clinica Esperanza in Sandy Bay, with a new pediatrics ward and birthing center, was ready to open.
It’s now mid-July, and the crash carts and beds and defibrillators and incubators have never been used. They’re new, shiny, ready to go … and just sitting there.
“While babies on this island are dying!” wailed one of Peggy’s staff members.
Why is this happening? Why is the best modern medical facility on Roatan sitting dormant? Why is the most-used clinic for “the poor and under-served” populace unable to secure a license to operate the new wing, and why has a shipping container filled with medical supplies for the clinic (but mostly for the public hospital) been sitting in blistering heat for more than three months?
In a word: paperwork.
“Until we get those two pieces of paper (the license and the dispensa) the clinic’s closed,” Peggy said on Friday.
Friday, July 8, was a pretty big news day on Roatan, with plenty of attention focused on the red-haired bundle of nerves and strength who wanted nothing but to do her job. Instead, she was issuing press releases, tracking down the wives of presidents, and chasing wild geese.
That’s how she spent her day, instead of caring for the sick people on the island who have come to depend on her.
That morning, this blog posted her press release warning that the clinic would shut down, and within a few hours, there was a Facebook page dedicated to saving the clinic, the chat groups started buzzing, local radio worked itself into a lather, and — since it’s Roatan — rumors starting flying like junebugs under a porch light.
In fact, right around noon, anonymous reports hinted that the first lady of Honduras was emptying the shipping container of its medical supplies, in broad daylight. I met up with Channel 27 down there, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that no containers were being opened, much less by big-wig dignitaries: in fact, it was lunch/siesta time, and no one was doing anything.
At the same time Chas Watkins was starting up his Facebook page, this blogger was following Peggy’s staff with a notebook, camera and digital recorder, and Roatan Radio (101.1 FM) applied a bit more fire to the lazy feet that are dragging and therefore hampering Peggy’s mission.
It was a weird, wired conjunction where Skype, cell phones, digital social-networking media, old-school radio and eyewitness reporting enjoyed a sort of strange convergence of connectivity.
But back at Clinica Esperanza — where the general mood was shock and disbelief (apart from the patients, who had no idea what was going on) — Peggy was calm. She’d clearly reached “the end of her tether,” as Roatan Radio boss William Crisp put it, but she wasn’t unraveling.
She was eating yogurt.
Right around 2 p.m. her Blackberry rang with an important call: the right people and papers were in place, and the container, sitting at a French Harbour dock since April 24, was ready to be opened. Of course, Peggy jumped in her red pickup and rode right down there.
Did anyone show up? Was the container opened? Did Peggy get the dispensa needed to obtain the materials, or a license that would allow her to open her new facility legally?
No, no, no and no.
Crisp, who said, “We have to assume there’s a more morbid, nasty reason behind this,” was livid. Station boss John Morris played phone tag with various sources for an hour as conflicting reports trickled in. “It’s not the Gringos who are hurting,” Crisp noted. “It’s not the rich people — it’s the people from up in the Colonia.”
And on Monday, Dr. Raymond Cherrington predicts, the closing of the clinica will doubly impact those poor people on Roatan: “I’m concerned that people will spend money on a taxi to get here — spend money they could use on food.”
To provide a slice of what a typical Peggy Stranges day is like: in the middle of her fight for the container came an urgent phone call.
A tourist experiencing full-blown renal failure, dependent on daily dialysis for survival, came to Roatan with no supplies, no dialysis fluid, nothing.
Who’s supposed to fix that problem? Saint Peggy. Who else?
“There is NO dialysis fluid on this island,” she tells the caller. “It’s over in Ceiba. He needs to go there, get in a taxi, and ask for dialysis center.”
She hangs up the phone.
“It really upsets me when people do things like this,” she says.
But back to the matter at hand: it’s 3 p.m., the first lady is nowhere to be found, and she’s the only one who has the authority to produce the necessary document to open the container.
An employee tells her, “She’s been told it’s been released, but I have no proof it’s been released.” Peggy recounts how the first lady had blown her off earlier that morning.
“I was very offended by that,” Peggy says. “I don’t care what your title is. Just say no. Just say something. I don’t understand. I don’t care who it’s been consigned to – why isn’t it being released?
The tangle of paperwork is familiar to anyone on the island who has tried to take possession of anything shipped from the States. But an e-mail she received Friday from Dr. Javier Pastor, the vice-minister of the health department, offered a ray of hope.
“The first lady herself got the final authorization for the release, she is at the island right now to open the container,” read the e-mail. “It will be good, you contact her and thank her for her help.”
Peggy did just that, typing out a nice note to the first lady’s assistant on her Blackberry: “Please thank the first lady for me for all her help in getting the container open.”
“But there’s no paperwork,” the employee explains to Peggy. “If she comes and says open it, we’re gonna open it.”
Meanwhile, the clock’s ticking. A kid on the mainland, Peggy explains, has been waiting for months for a special wheelchair that’s held inside the locked container.
“What if I say open it?” Peggy asks.
The employee laughs. “I think probably at around 4 o’clock, the first lady is going to contact someone,” she says hopefully.
Peggy, exasperated but still chill, says, “She’s here on vacation, and I don’t want to bother her. But how long will a friggin’ signature take?”
No one knows when the first lady is leaving the island, but this much is set in stone:
“Not even the first lady is going to open this business on a Saturday, I can guarantee you that,” the employee tells Peggy. “We may open on a Sunday, but it will not be after 5 p.m. on Friday, and not before 5 p.m. on Saturday. That’s the legacy we’ve built this business on.”
Maybe I should just come back Monday? Peggy wants to know.
“I just don’t understand what the problem is!” she says.
“The problem is there’s no paperwork on it,” answers the employee, “which should have been done six to eight weeks ago. Then it wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Peggy’s tired of waiting. “I don’t expect anything,” she says, “so I’m never disappointed.”
But her frustration bubbles to the surface on her way back to the clinic.
“The biggest business in Honduras isn’t tourism,” she points out, “it’s philanthropy. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who come down here every year to help Honduras, and this is the way we get treated?”
She estimates that for the last half-year, at least one hour of her weekday is devoted to the paperwork issue.
“It’s like five weeks of somebody’s life, just gone.”
She parks her pickup in the near-empty clinic lot. Her Blackberry buzzes. It’s a text message from Perla Caceres, the first lady’s personal assistant. It consists of two words.
“Thank you,” it reads.