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Who would imagine, when escorted into the office of Dr. Richard Honer, MD, that he had another practice far away from the sophistication of the Gessler Clinic and Winter Haven Hospital.  Almost every year since 1999, he and his wife Andy, have gone to the rural mountain town of San Juan, Santo Domingo, to treat villagers in need.

It all started with a conversation he had with Dr. Larry Thomas, who had been going to Santo Domingo since 1995. Sister Bernard, the head of the mission, had been working with Dr. Thomas.  “Larry was bugging me to go for a couple of years but I was hesitant, maybe a little afraid,” said Dr. Honer.  “One Sunday, I heard a presentation by Sister Bernard, of the Mission program of Catholic Charities. As I was leaving the church, I heard a voice from above say “You’re going on the mission!” It wasn’t God, it was my wife Andy, saying, ”You’re going and I’m going with you and we’re going next year!’”  

Once the couple went on that first trip, they were committed. They have gone almost every year since and have recruited other Doctors to go along.  The conditions they encountered at the hospital were challenging. 

“When we first started going, there were holes in the walls with flypaper hanging over the holes. We worried about infection but in spite of the environment we had really good results.  I’d keep the same scrubs on from one surgery case to the next, but I would change my gloves.”

The area he worked in was very much like a MASH unit. Sometimes there would be two patients in the same bed waiting their turn for their operation. There were no complaints from the patients as they were so thankful to be able to be treated. The entire crew of nurses and translators were from Florida. Everyone pitched in to make sure that the patients were treated with respect and kindness. Generally the patients had to leave the hospital with a short recovery time as the attending surgeons were there for less than a week.

“The local doctors don’t tend to stay around when we are at the hospital. There is a private clinic where they practice. I think they may have resented us at first but now we almost never see them. There is not a problem with the patients we treat as they are poor and could not pay for private physicians,” explained Dr. Honer.  “I thought that after five years of going down, the local doctors would consider treating all the patients the same. I wanted to see a change in the culture. Even the nurses treat the poor differently. I was told that it would be hard to change a culture in one generation or even two. I had to realize that I didn’t need to be disappointed. I knew I was at least helping people one at a time.  We all have made a difference in their lives. I like to think that those that we have helped, maybe in the future, will remember what we did and turn around and help someone else.“

“In this country when you have hernia you get it fixed.  Down there you don’t have ‘wellness care’ so when you have a problem it is usually an acute problem. One time, I had three cases of stomach obstruction.  The obstructions were secondary to ulcers.They had ulcers but because they couldn’t buy Tagamet or other drugs and don’t have access to health care, the blockages evolved. Here in U.S. you treat it and it goes away.  There, the patient doesn’t see a doctor because he has no money or because the nearest doctor is a donkey ride and a bus ride away from the government hospital. Thats why so many of our cases would need attention.”

When asked if there was much help from the government with the program, Dr. Honer said it really varied from one trip to the other. “Sometimes customs would allow medicines and supplies to go in and other times there were difficulties depending on the Ministry of Health.

We also worry about the equipment we bring down. At times it disappears and sometimes there is a problem keeping it maintained. It may be stored where there is no air conditioning and no routine maintenance. We just do the best we can.”

For most of the trips he is accompanied with his wife, Andy.  She is Sister Bernard’s right hand person.  She helps control the flow of events. Before the surgical team arrives in November, the patients must have been selected and had arrangements made for that week. When Andy arrives, a big part of her job is getting the patients registered, their health history must be taken and the surgery scheduled. There are many other details to be coordinated. Andy’s help over the years has been invaluable.  Dr. Honer says, “Both Andy and I get satisfaction knowing we have helped these people and they are so appreciative for that. It’s touching when years later a patient will bring in a child and tell me that I had helped him when he was young and he never forgot. And now I’m helping his child.”

Dr. Honer says these trips are a big part of his and Andy’s lives.  As a specialist in internal medicine, he and his wife  came to Winter Haven in 1985. They raised their children here and started giving back to the community early on. As a couple, they are involved with many local causes. For years they both worked at Angel Care Clinic, where, until recently, Dr. Honer was director. Andy was there for years helping the Doctors and patients. They have volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, Guardian ad Litem, and have both been awarded the Bankers Cup for service.

Dr. Honer leaves us with this sentiment, “Everybody needs to do a mission trip. I’ve learned some people do it and fall in love with it.  And some go down and are miserable.  You can’t apply what you know and do here with what you can do down there. You can’t be rigid. You have to be flexible. You have to make do with what you have got. I like going because I see results , I like to operate, and I like to help people!”

Dr.Honer and his wife are an example of what is good in our town. There are many in Winter Haven “Trying to make the world better!”  It’s nice to share their adventures and perhaps inspire others to do the same.

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