June 03, 2013
It was during a recent mission to a gritty and poverty-stricken Honduran village that the absurdity of modern society’s entitlement issues first struck Harish Ponnuru, MD.
At the end of a long day seeing patients in a makeshift urgent care clinic it was a young boy—who had waited hours in the oppressive and blistering Honduran heat—who touched Dr. Ponnuru.
“This 14-year-old was dehydrated and suffering from a severe case of dysentery,” says Dr. Ponnuru, who practices internal medicine at Statland Medical Group on the Menorah Medical Center campus. “He never complained while waiting to see medical staff in 93-degree heat. In fact, he let his mother go ahead of him. In the United States, we’re often impatient if we have to wait at a stoplight or for our web browser to respond or for a meal to be delivered to our table at a restaurant.”
Menorah Medical Center is part of HCA Midwest Health System—Kansas City’s largest healthcare provider. Statland Medical Group—part of Midwest Physicians, also part of HCA Midwest Health System—is a network of experienced, multi-specialty physicians located throughout the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.
Dr. Ponnuru, who has practiced medicine for 14 years, recently returned from his first medical mission trip abroad. The physician accompanied a group from Leawood’s Church of the Resurrection that took a water filtration system to the remote Honduran village of El Obraje, nearly a three-hour drive from the country’s capital city.
“I’ve always wanted to participate in a mission trip but the right time and situation had never converged,” says Dr. Ponnuru. “Until March. The opportunity to join this group presented itself and I signed up.”
What Dr. Ponnuru found in the rundown village of 2,000 residents matched his expectations: abject poverty.
It was what Dr. Ponnuru didn’t expect to encounter that surprised him the most.
“General happiness,” says Dr. Ponnuru. “People were grateful for what very little they had. It was extraordinarily humbling.”
Diabetes-related conditions were the most common medical issues Dr. Ponnuru saw in the patients who visited the temporary El Obraje clinic.
“There was a handful of people I would have recommended for hospitalization, but that just wasn’t possible,” says Dr. Ponnuru. “I was simply able to intervene in many cases. People of all ages had severe asthma, allergies and infections. Babies had significant respiratory problems because of the area’s wildfires and dry air. Some people hadn’t received any type of medical attention in a year.”
Dr. Ponnuru attributes the village’s widespread diabetes to a diet heavy in carbohydrates.
“Plus people eat erratically—food isn’t always available,” he says. “The food they can afford isn’t necessarily nutritious.”
A nurse practitioner, dentist and pharmacist rounded out the mission’s medical team. Additional nonmedical personnel made the trip to bring the water filtration system and educate families on how to use it.
“One of the villagers offered a blessing,” says Dr. Ponnuru. “Not for what we were giving them, but for the group—that we were a blessing to the community.”
A translator told Dr. Ponnuru that often visitors to the village have pity on its residents. “That’s not the reason any of us should endeavor to join a mission,” says Dr. Ponnuru.
“The people are very proud and again, value their priceless possession of happiness.”
“We are proud of physicians like Dr. Ponnuru who broaden their scope to include treating patients in faraway, underserved areas,” says Steve Wilkinson, FACHE, president and chief executive officer of Menorah Medical Center. “These experiences positively impact the compassionate care their patients receive here.”
“Our network of physicians is committed to helping people in places like Honduras and other countries where medical care is not readily available,” says Loren Meyer, MD, president of Midwest Physicians. “Dr. Ponnuru is an exemplary example of our physicians eager to lend their expertise in needy areas of the world.”
Dr. Ponnuru says the mission experience has indelibly impacted his approach to life. “The first week I was back in Johnson County I realized things I had been anxious about or that bothered me weren’t important,” he says. “The things we take for granted here are considered absolute luxuries in El Obraje.”
Dr. Ponnuru has committed to joining another mission trip in the near future. “I can’t wait for another life-changing experience,” he says.