From Manhattan Island to the Bay Islands of Honduras: One Pediatrician’s Experience is a Study in Contrasts

Upon arriving in Roatán to spend four weeks with Global Healing last January, Dr. Jamila Williams was struck by the beauty of the island. Surrounded by warm Caribbean waters and dotted with tropical hilltops, Roatán is the largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras, drawing tourists from around the world.

In stark contrast to the lush surroundings, public health resources are extremely limited on the island, with only one public hospital and two public outpatient clinics for a population that can reach 80,000. To help address this critical lack of medical resources, Global Healing established the Roatán Volunteer Pediatric Clinic (RVPC) in 2003 as a joint project with Public Hospital Roatán. Thousands of children are seen every year at RVPC, the only free pediatric clinic on the island.

A third-year resident at NYU with an interest in global health, Dr. Williams was thrilled to learn of the opportunity to complete an international elective at RVPC through Global Healing.

“The need is so great there,” said Dr. Williams. “People think of Roatán for scuba diving vacations, but from a health perspective people are suffering. It’s a humbling experience to see how access to medicine can change from person to person just based on where you were born and what resources you have.”

As part of the Global Healing team, Dr. Williams completed in-patient rounds both in the NICU and the regular pediatric ward of the hospital, then saw patients in the clinic. The Global Healing volunteer team makes it possible for more children to be seen in the RVPC as well as provides the medical personnel with new skills to use with their patients.

On some days, the team provided instruction to the hospital’s Social Service doctors (the equivalent of interns in the US system) on topics such as the management of patients with elevated bilirubin levels. Showing the staff how to use a “BiliTool” app on their phones, Dr. Williams and team helped them learn how to assess bilirubin levels more objectively so they can make more effective interventions.

“Global Healing is making an enormous difference on the island,” Dr. Williams said. “Roatán attracts a lot of tourism so money is coming into the country, but at the same time medical personnel often have to fight to get fluids for a patient because of frequent shortages of medications and other supplies.”

The local government does what it can, but with an annual health expense per capita of just over $200, access to health care throughout Honduras remains limited. Global Healing continues to help on Roatán in a number of areas— for example, teaching local physicians to get the most out of what they have available and providing essential new equipment such as AEDs and warmers, bilirubin blankets and special ventilators for premature infants. This year, Global Healing has started a new project in collaboration with the Public Hospital to improve hand hygiene and safe placement of IV lines by hospital staff, to help prevent healthcare-acquired infections.

Back to her busy NYU residency schedule, Dr. Williams said her experience with Global Healing changed her perspective. “It was great to see physicians care about more than just what’s going on at home,” she said, “and take a global view in trying to help people in need.”