Reprinted with permission from The Patriot News, May 14, 2007.
David Calcagno knew he was heading south. But he didn’t realize that, in a medical sense, he was stepping into the Dark Ages.
On a medical mission to the Caribbean nation of Honduras this spring, the West Shore vascular surgeon encountered an array of open sores and a quiet endurance he came to admire.
Armed with a needle and a syringe, he was able to make lives less troubled.
“Honduras is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” Calcagno said, noting that only Haiti has greater poverty. “It’s an amazingly beautiful and agriculturally very rich. … It’s a paradise, and yet the money’s not getting to the people.”
Calcagno, who lives in East Pennsboro Twp. and practices with the Calcagno & Rossi Vein Treatment Center in Hampden Twp., went to Honduras in late March 2007 with a medical “brigade” of the Hackett Hemwall Foundation, based at the University of Wisconsin.
The mission was unique because of its focus, he said.
Each of the 31 volunteers — there were Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, South Africans, Danes, Germans, Italians and doctors from the United Arab Emirates — was a specialist in treating ailments involving veins.
They used injections, not scalpels, to address cases of advanced venous disease, including extreme and painful cases of varicose veins, Calcagno said. He said the injections, known as sclerotherapy, sealed off damaged areas of the veins, which won’t heal if left untreated.
Calcagno said many of the Honduran cases were so severe, the affected areas were covered with suppurating ulcers, like slowly oozing volcanoes. The sores erupt from the pressure created as blood pumped through the damaged veins leaks into surrounding tissue, he said.
One Honduran woman had an open sore on her shin the size of a softball, he said. Many others had smaller ulcers on knotty, disfigured legs.
Few patients had seen a doctor before, said Calcagno, whose brigade treated about 3,600 people.
Most were women, because childbirth makes them more susceptible to varicose veins, he said.
Calcagno said he walked two miles from his hotel every day to treat people at a clinic in the city of LaCeiba, where examining rooms were created by hanging blankets over pipes to give an illusion of privacy.
The patients were universally patient as they waited in the sweltering tropical heat, he said.
“It was amazing how far some of them had come,” Calcagno said. “There were people who walked for hours to have us treat them. Some had ridden in cars for days.”
Calcagno said high school students volunteered as interpreters so doctors could speak with patients,
whose names were written on their limbs in magic marker.
He didn’t just administer shots, however.
Some former missionaries had advised him to carry Hershey Kisses as a treat for local children.
“The kids would go crazy for those,” Calcagno said. “One little kid just popped one in his mouth with the foil still on. I had to reach in and get it out.”
The pleasure of those children was satisfying, he said, as was the ability to relieve such suffering.
“The care we gave was basic, but it was something that works,” Calcagno said. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than they’d had.”