Doctors Despair In Honduras

Unable to bear the strain any longer, the acting chief of Honduras' largest hospital burst into tears as he considered the disaster Hurricane Mitch has made of his country's health care system.

"Forgive me," Dr. Manuel Carrasco Villela begged, wiping his tired eyes. "Forgive me. It's been seven days of this. We are completely dismembered in this country. ... The health system is dismembered. This is going to get worse."

The toll of Hurricane Mitch grew to an estimated 9,000 dead Tuesday. Some 7,000 deaths occurred in Honduras.

At the 1,100-bed Teachers Hospital (Hospital Escuela) in the capital of Tegucigalpa, much of the staff for days have been on nearly round-the-clock duty, coping with shortages of blood, medicines and food and knowing the worst is to come.

Those who can get home for a few brief hours each night have to deal with an overnight curfew imposed to quash vandalism, looting and robberies by criminals wearing police uniforms.

"I've been here since Friday. The trauma has been overwhelming," said paramedic Jose Isais Funez Cruz. "They told me, 'You work in a hospital. Your duty is to attend the people until the country collapses.'"

Like most of the city of 800,000, the state-owned Teachers Hospital has been without water since Saturday. On Tuesday, staff got the pump that drives the hospital's well working again, only to find the hurricane had damaged the pipes.

For now, doctors rely on tanker trucks to bring water from cisterns on a nearby mountain, Carrasco explained. But the wait is agonizingly long the trucks are mired in traffic jams caused by destroyed bridges and roads

Other essentials are running out: canned food, powdered milk for infants and mothers, analgesics, antibiotics, antiinflammatories.

As the scale of the disaster becomes better known and transportation is restored in the days ahead, doctors anticipate more patients and the threat of malaria, bronchial and intestinal infections, Funez Cruz said.

The flood-swollen Choluteca River, which cut this city in half and destroyed most of its bridges, savaged the second-floor blood bank at the nearby Social Security Hospital and seriously damaged blood banks run by the Red Cross. Its patients were transferred to the Teachers Hospital.

Written by By James Anderson