Taking the Train (of Thought) to Honduras: COVID-19 Isolation, Day 70

It’s raining. And it’s Day 70 of lockdown, with no end in sight. I see people bursting out of their homes, congregating here and there. The local Publix grocery store ceased social distancing measures, while still demanding that customers wear masks.

All I can do right now is retreat into re-readings of Stephen King and re-watchings of old movies starring Donald Sutherland: The Assignment, The Eye of the Needle, and A Dry White Season. Even cooking loses its charm day after day.

There’s still memory, though.

And, back to the rain, the pattering drops on my roof remind me of the many rain days I spent in Honduras, where I lived for four years. During that time, I called three different places “home”: La Lima, San Pedro Sula, El Zamorano.

That last one, El Zamorano, led to an experience that I will never forget.

Until recently, most Hondurans lived in rural areas. El Zamorano, where I lived, sits about 25 miles from Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. The United Fruit Company founded it as a school for agricultural education for young men from all over Latin America, partly to atone for the powerful company’s influence throughout Latin America. El Zamorano now offers a co-educational four-year university degree.


Rural scene, Honduras (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


Open-air Market, Honduras (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

A medical student I met at El Zamorano attended medical school in Tegucigalpa, and he invited me to meet one of his professors, who specialized in treating malnourished children. Apparently the medical students received very little training in basic nutrition.

And that’s how I spent six months doing rounds twice a week with the professor and medical students, teaching basic nutrition after the rounds. Most of the medical students simply believed malnutrition to be a natural state of things for poor people, especially children. That even seasoned physicians believed this came as a great shock to me.

Because of their weakened state, these children also suffered from measles and chickenpox. Thankfully, I had had both diseases as a child and so had immunity. Not so my 5- year-old son, at least not when it came to chickenpox. When I returned home after driving the 25 miles back to El Zamorano, I forbade him from coming near me until I’d showered and changed my clothes. Ironically, he came down with chickenpox when he turned 13 and suffered a very debilitating case of it, all the more reason to vaccinate! Note that all this occurred before a chickenpox vaccine became available.

The following photos show the impact of the disease on some of the children. Most presented with edema and swollen bellies, as well as changes in hair color.

Mothers tried to stay with their children as much as they could, but limited financial ability made that difficult. In addition, nutrition education only went so far, because without access to markets or because of the need to sell produce or eggs for cash, the daily diet of corn tortillas and beans and chiles couldn’t always provide all the nutrition necessary for the children.

Over the years since, I’ve often wondered what happened to these children, if they survived or not after returning home.

I still wonder.

The healthier children sitting for a photo. (All photos: C. Bertelsen)