Improvise, Adapt, Overcome, and Text
A big stormed slammed the Eastern US on the very day my team was departing from Louisville, Kentucky with a destination of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It was a rather large group of 21 dentists, dental students, and support personnel. As is my SOP, the Mrs. and I had arrived two days earlier to make sure all was well and ready for the group’s arrival. I was already awake when my Honduran cell phone rang at 5:00am and it was one of the team members frantically explaining that the weather had caused a two-hour delay and it was looking like the team may miss their connecting flight in Atlanta.
I told them not to worry, we would monitor the situation and make adjustments as necessary. With 21 empty seats on a plane, the likelihood of holding the flight was greater if they were going to be a little late. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way.
The next notice I got was after the team arrived in Atlanta. The Herald was a text message to my cell phone. Texting is a much cheaper form of communication, especially for poor students with, what I am sure was, a deer in the headlights look on their faces. The message was that all the group made it to Atlanta, but the only flight to Honduras was already gone. Delta had to figure out how to get the group to Honduras as soon as possible and all the planes were full.
Every thirty minutes, a new text with an update appeared on my phone. I had already notified the first clinic site that there would be no team arriving and we would have to cancel that day’s clinic. The hotel was accommodating and canceled the first night’s reservations so I didn’t have to pay for 10 empty rooms.
The beauty of the text message is that you only send the facts. At a few cents per message, we were able to get pertinent information related without spending lots of time on the phone. I never realized how useful this tool could be in a third world country where dropped calls and expensive long-distance rates reign supreme. I was glad we found out.
Delta had only a few seats left on the next day’s flight and the decision was made to send the bulk of the team to New York to catch a flight on Taca airlines’ red-eye with an early morning arrival. For those who don’t know, we affectionately refer to Taca as Take A Chance Airlines. I had a great feeling of impending doom when I realized they would be involved in this adventure. That feeling turned out to be accurate.
One veteran team member was assigned to go with each group so that someone with some experience would be on each flight and help keep the group focused and prevent panic (it was the first international trip for many).
The plan was that the group in Atlanta would arrive normally and the others would have their bags shipped to New York so that everything would be intact. What actually happened, however, was that the genius in charge of the bags obviously didn’t get the memo. The best laid plans…
Texts continued to roll in at all hours of the night and continued delays were overcome. The first group arrived on Taca and I had my bus and mini-van waiting to collect the team and their luggage. The luggage was very important since it had all the supplies and instruments necessary to accomplish the mission. It was a bit disheartening when the luggage stopped coming on the conveyor and we only had 3 bags.
With the team too tired to think, I whisked them to the hotel to get them put to bed and then returned to the airport to try and locate the bags. The Delta rep said not to worry, it appears they were not in fact shipped to New York, but would be coming in on the Delta flight as planned.
I hung out in the airport waiting for the Delta flight and it finally showed up. Once again that pit in my stomach churned a bit when only 4 bags came off the conveyor. The Delta rep had a worried look on his face when he saw me walking up again. As it turns out, his computer didn’t show where the bags were located. A “discussion” with the Taca rep, who I am now convinced had experienced a major head injury at some point in her life, led to finger pointing and blame placing on anyone but the illustrious Taca Airlines. Situation Normal, AFU!
Getting the Delta and Taca Reps together, they all agreed that there was a great chance the bags would show up on Taca’s flight that evening. Great, I’ll believe when I see it.
Since Taca had contaminated the bags, by becoming involved with the process and ensuring problems, I immediately lost hope that we would ever see them again. I got the rest of the team to the hotel and we went through the bags that did arrive. Turns out we got a handful of instruments and just a few of the supplies necessary.
Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome
At this point, we had to make a decision. Not knowing when, or if, the bags would ever arrive, I didn’t want the team to spend a week in the hotel at San Pedro Sula twiddling their thumbs. I made a run to a local dental supplier and was greatly pleased to see that, for once, the place seemed fully stocked. I bought some basic instruments and enough disposable stuff to function one more day in the naïve hope that the bags would arrive that night and all would be well with the world the next day.
We worked on the next day and actually functioned pretty well, considering. Spirits were OK as everyone had been warned to pack a couple of changes of clothes in their carry-on. Hope still remained. Hope died a horrible death when a trip to the airport led to the final revelation that there was no sign of the bags and no one had a tracking number in the computer. The genius at Taca even suggested that they may be on the UPS cargo flight that day. I didn’t even acknowledge that ludicrous statement since UPS generally requires someone to actually ship something and provides tracking information. Neither of these two critical components existed. THIRTY-ONE pieces of luggage had officially dropped off the grid.
Once again we trekked to the dental supplier and he hit the jackpot. We purchased a collection of surgical supplies and instruments that would impress any oral surgeon and then pressed on to finish the job. All the emergency funds were depleted (along with a little more), but we were in business.
The team did well by sharing clothes and washing them in the sink, or jumping in the hotel pool fully clothed to get the sweat and dirt off them. Once they were working on patients the worries of not having much disappeared. Something about caring for suffering people in the third world really changes one’s perspective. This group realized that they did not, in fact, really have any problems. The people they were treating, however, had a life full of pain, and difficulty. They had problems and we were able to do something about it.
The team performed exceptionally well and treated nearly all the patients that showed up seeking care. On the last day, 10 bags showed up at the airport (several of which were soaking wet from sitting on the tarmac for a week) and we simply re-checked them to Kentucky. The remaining bags did finally arrive back in Kentucky three days AFTER the team had returned home. At least they did that much.
One of my team members later said that he didn’t pay much attention to what I call the Hondofactor until he was faced with it in such an undeniable way. Many lessons were learned about what is and is not important. I was proud of this group and their flexibility allowed for completion of the mission in the face of great opposition. I’ll take any one of them on a trip again. The next time, however, we are flying Continental.