Amid chaos, we stand united
National Director Stephen O'Mahony shares the difficult decisions he and his team made as the coronavirus pandemic entered Honduras, and the acts of selfless caring that mark the NPH Honduras family.
March 24, 2020 - Honduras
In the midst of chaos, panic, and uncertainty, often you learn a lot about people.
In these past few weeks, which have felt like months, we have all had our world turned inside out and upside down. We have been forced to change, to adapt to new norms, even new ways of saying ‘hello’ to one another. One would be forgiven for feeling like the world had become a colder place, more cautious, more fearful, less loving.
But in the wake of this chaos, we have seen profound goodness emerge. Since the beginning of this pandemic in Honduras, over and over again I have felt my heart swell fit to burst with overwhelming pride as our whole NPH family in Honduras responds to this challenging situation with love, determination, and, most of all, togetherness.
In the first few days following the confirmation of the virus in Honduras, I had a conversation with Reinhart Kohler (NPHI Board President and co-founder of NPH Honduras) about what we would have to do at Rancho Santa Fe if the virus were to make it inside. We spoke about the need to shelter all the sick, as we both knew the government would have no possibility of caring for so many critically ill people—indeed, on the best of days they struggle. Sister Kolbe was with us at the time. Simply, with an unquestionable tone of finality, she told us, “You will need someone to take care of the sick when the virus enters. I will do that.” I had no doubt that she fully understood the risks involved.
Last week, discussing the impossible situation of our caregiver staff rotations, we realized with despair and exasperation that there was no possible way we could allow staff to leave and re-enter the ranch—the risk of bringing the virus here from outside was too great. This meant that the shift of staff who were currently on the property, and had already been here for the last 10 days, were going to have to stay for another three weeks to allow for a two-week quarantine period for the incoming shift of caregivers.
The implications of this decision were clear. Imagine saying ‘goodbye’ to your children and telling them you would be back in a week as usual, and then, as I said, the world turns upside down.
As we approached lunchtime, the coordinators were instructed to go to speak with the caregivers and ask if any of them were willing to stay and help us; no one would be required to stay. The atmosphere was tense. No one expected the caregivers would accept such a huge commitment. After all, they are typically the main breadwinners of the family—often single mothers. Who would bring their families food? Who would organize medications for their own children?
During the break, I went to inform the volunteers of our recommendation that they return to their home countries due to the anticipated collapse of the Honduran health system if and when this virus gains a foothold in society. After going into great detail—fewer than 100 ICU beds in the country, complete lack of ventilators even on a normal day—I was stopped in my tracks by a question from a volunteer. “If we choose to stay, will there be something we can do to help or would we just be getting in the way?”
As I left the volunteers, I received a phone call from House Director Mauricio Calles, “No me vas a creer. Casi todos los tíos aceptaron.” (“You're never going to believe me. Nearly all the caregivers accepted.”) When I met up again with the coordinators, I could feel their excitement even before I entered the room. The joy and pride they felt at this enormous gesture of love and commitment from their staff shone from each of their faces. Before we adjourned, I told them how profoundly inspired I am by their dedication and willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of our family. It wasn’t necessary to ask them if they, too, would be staying.
When your ‘work’ means protecting the children and youth you love, a government order urging people to avoid the risk of travelling to work becomes somewhat irrelevant. Kenia Girón, coordinator of Casa Ángeles—our home for children and youth with severe disabilities in Tegucigalpa—has not been to her own home since all this began. She knew that in order to minimize risks she and her staff would have to either confine themselves to Casa Ángeles or stay home. Staying away wasn’t an option for Kenia. She told me she called her mother to explain the situation, and her mother’s response was, “Kenia, one month away from your work—you would die! Stay there, I will be fine.”
Everyone here is going above and beyond, and then beyond that again, to battle this devastating plague. We are all conscious that if the virus reaches the ranch there are many, many lives at risk: 34 children and youth with special needs; 17 children and youth who are HIV positive; five abuelos (grandparents) in Casa Eva, the home for our elderly; 15 children and youth with severe disabilities in Casa Ángeles, just to name a few.
The reality is we don’t know how long this situation will go on. Everything is closed here: shops, supermarkets, pharmacies, and transport. We are in full military lockdown with armed guards blocking passage on roads all over the country—the nearest checkpoint just 3 kilometers from the ranch on the way to Tegucigalpa.
In these difficult times, what is asked of people goes so much further than what is written in an employment contract. After a natural disaster, people go above and beyond to help those in need, to pick up the pieces. To bury those who have died, to dig out those who have been buried by rubble, to make sacrifices, to save lives.
We are in a unique situation where, to a certain extent, we are facing the disaster before it happens. We are in a position to do something to abate the incoming storm. But in order to do so what is asked of us is drastic, to the extreme. It is difficult. It is a sacrifice. And it is something that would never be asked of us were we not in a situation where there really is no alternative.
With the extreme measures the government is taking, there exists a possibility this pandemic may be contained. In a few months we might be breathing a collective sigh of relief knowing that we have battled hard against a force much greater than ourselves and we have won, together. The reality is we do not know. In the meanwhile, we must be strong, we must be united, we must be family.
Our family has no doubt that sooner or later we will see the sun shine. These storms last just a while.
Please support our NPH homes in this time of need. Any help you can give is well received and accepted graciously. Please visit nph.org for more information.
National Director, NPH Honduras