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[Articles Home]  [Add Article]  

Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine

Bob Watson (K7RBW) on November 14, 2014
View comments about this article!

Last February, my wife and I traveled to Honduras with the International Health Service of Minnesota (www.ihsmn.org) on their annual brigada medica (medical brigade). This is a short summary of my experience as a radio operator on the trip.

Honduras

The welcome

In the pre-deployment briefing at our hotel in La Ceiba, Honduras, our team leader reminded us that there was no cellphone, no Internet, and they had even been having problems with their satellite radio at our location. The only reliable communication in the area would be HF amateur radio. For a moment, it sounded like a scenario from a ham-radio forum, but this was real—for the next two weeks, my ham radio would be the only reliable communication for our medical team and the hundreds of patients we would see.

No pressure.

The mission

For over 30 years, the International Health Service of Minnesota, or IHS, has organized one or two brigadas medicas each year to Honduras. IHS brings together teams of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and support staff who volunteer to deliver desperately needed health and dental care to remote areas throughout Honduras. For many of the people in these areas, these visits are the only health and dental care the patients ever get. On this trip, a medical, dental, or surgical team went to 10 different locations in Honduras. Each team included the medical staff: the doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and the support staff: an interpreter, a radio operator, a team leader, and a general helper or two. For my wife and I, this was our first trip with IHS—my wife as an interpreter and I as a radio operator.

Preparing supplies in Puerto Lempira for transport to the field sites

The location

The air ambulance and hospital in Rus Rus

My wife and I went to the hospital in Rus Rus, Honduras. Just five miles north of Nicaragua, the “hospital” is really more of a clinic, which was built in the 1980s to handle Nicaraguan refugees. It seems to be trapped in the 1980s; however a missionary group is in the process of renovating it. Some teams worked under more civilized conditions while other teams arrived to work in even more humble locations—using only the supplies and facilities that they could bring with them.

The line to see the dentist

The village of Rus Rus normally has a population of about 150. During our visit, it tripled in size with all the people visiting from the surrounding villages to receive medical and dental care. While Rus Rus is only 60 miles from the nearest city, the port city of Puerto Lempira, the intervening swamp and jungle make those 60 miles a 12-hour ordeal over land—if you can find someone who is willing to make the trip. The Cessna 206 air ambulance that the missionaries operate provides the only reasonable means of transportation in the area.

Patients in the hospital waiting room on a typical day of our visit

The radio

Be it ever so humble, this is the K7RBW/HR8 station at the QTH in Rus Rus

In Rus Rus, there is no commercial electricity, no cell phone, and no Internet. In the city of Puerto Lempira, the government had shut off the Internet and cell phone service and, even on a good day, commercial power and telephone service is unreliable. For us, in Rus Rus, a 10-kilowatt diesel generator provided power to the hospital from sun-up to shortly after sundown. We had to run the generator sparingly because its fuel had to be flown in from the Puerto Lempira in 5-gallon cans. A 12-volt battery that we borrowed from one of the missionary’s tractors powered the radio equipment when the generator was not running.

All of our radio communications went through my Yaesu FT-857D, which was connected to a mini G5RV antenna. The teams conducted a 40-meter voice net, three-times a day, and ran Winlink 2000 to exchange e-mail as often as the message traffic required. N5TW’s station in Texas made sure we always had a reliable Winlink gateway. Typical message traffic included patient consults from the team’s doctor, coordinating patient transfers for the air ambulance, and routine, logistical traffic to coordinate supplies. A couple of emergency cases required coordination between the surgeon, who lived about 100 miles to the north and the hospital, located in Puerto Lempira, 60 miles to the east. Using the ham radio to pass e-mail and voice traffic, and the Cessna 206 for the transportation, we were able to bring everyone together.

Loading a patient into the air ambulance for her trip to the hospital in Puerto Lempira

As is often the case, radio duties were feast-or-famine. Sometimes, I would have everyone standing behind me to hear a message or I would have to run to the clinic to deliver a message to the team’s doctor. Other times, when there was nothing to do on the radio, I helped the medical and pharmacy staff as an interpreter in the hospital. With all the patients we saw, there was always something to do.

The reward

The opportunity to support the medical team so they could care for the hundreds of patients we saw would have been plenty of reward. However, seeing all the people we helped—the families, the children, and their spirit of community—provided a reward that is hard to put into words. My wife and I had the chance to talk with many of people who came to visit us and learn about their villages, families, and the journey to visit the clinic. Some patients had walked with their children for more than a day through the jungle just to visit the clinic.

The adventure

Some of the supplies we had to fly to Rus Rus (it took more than one trip)

Traveling to and living in a tropical jungle is almost the very definition of adventure. In our trip to Rus Rus, in La Mosquitia of eastern Honduras, the sense of adventure increased as the airplanes and airports got smaller with each stop along the way. For all the adventure, however, the trip went very smoothly—a testament to the years of experience IHS has acquired. As a person, it was great to help so many people. As a ham-radio operator, it was a great dxpedition—and a great way to have field day for two weeks in February!

IHS is now planning next year’s trips and they are always seeking enthusiastic volunteers. My wife and I have already signed up! Visit their web site (www.ihsmn.org) for more information.

Links

Member Comments:
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Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K9TY on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Bob, great story and what an experience! It shows how the infrastructure we take for granted simply doesn't exist in many parts of the world. Great to see an HF radio meeting the critical need!

73 and keep up the good work!

Dave K9TY
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KA4KOE on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
My bride, K4SMN, went on a mission trip a few years back. The trip was a true testament to the power of faith.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by W8QZ on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Fascinating story - great to hear about real 'em-comm', really needed and put to use.
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K3XI on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
God Bless you and your wife and organization. Being able to do this has to be a great feeling of satisfaction. Thank you for the pictures and information! It brings back memories from the early 80's when I ran phone patches for the missionaries on the Halo net on 21.390
For me, having the opportunity to be part of the Halo net is still my greatest achievement in my life, 30 years later, and always will be.
Great story Bob!!
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KF7ITG on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Sure is funny that in the US there are many grade school kids that can't afford dental care and are simply forced to endure with rotten broken teeth yet the Central American kids get free dental and medical care supplied directly from the US by our Doctors and Dentists. Yep that's a great service OK.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by W7ASA on November 14, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
'all the kids here...'

Congratulations! Sounds like you just volunteered.


Please keep us posted on your personal sacrifices and progress.



de Ray
W7ASA ..._ ._
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KF7ITG on November 15, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Well to tell the truth RadioRay I've done my time in the barrel so to answer your "Please keep us posted on your personal sacrifices and progress." Let me fill you in then you may like to reciprocate. We owned an FBO and donated several planes every year and had volunteer pilots that operated in Northern Mexico and in the Baja of California supporting the Doctors and Nurses who were also volunteering their time to the Flying Samaritans. I also donated planes and I volunteered as a pilot for the Wright Fright Program. I took several months away from a work and volunteered to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. Not to mention all the kids I have given airplane rides to for free that were looking at the planes through the fence at the airport. So yea RadioRay I've done my share and continue to do so. My point was we need to start at home and work our way out.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by W7ASA on November 15, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
You like aviation, which is understandable. Having flown medical charity workers into northern Mexico is good, but gives you no standing to criticize these people now who are spending their 'free' time in a 3rd world countries NOW, doing medical charity work NOW, simply because it's in not in your home country.

Besides that, this enjoyable article presses home what an excellent tool ham radio is in the absence of commercial communications infrastructure.




>Ray

 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KF7ITG on November 15, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Think what you will about helping your neighbors first. That's just my point of view. No criticism intended of these volinteer workers. As a past volunteer in remote locations ... Been there done that. As far as your comment "Besides that, this enjoyable article presses home what an excellent tool ham radio is in the absence of commercial communications infrastructure." Actually Ray a SatPhone is my first choice. I love mine, works anywhere anytime and I can call anyone on the planet within seconds. Ham Radio is fun. I tried to use Ham Radio like this in the early 80s without much luck. Again, been there done that.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KJ4DGE on November 15, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Bob,

Thanks for the nice article and the pictures. Always makes one feel good to help someone else less fortunate, wherever they are.

73

KJ4DGE
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by N3AWS on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Bob K7RBW:

WOW! What an inspiring story!

God bless you & your wife for going that extra mile.

73, Jim N3AWS
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KB4QAA on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
A heartwarming story indeed! Thanks.

However, is this appropriate use of amateur radio?

NO!

Amateur radio is for non-commercial personal use, and for urgent, temporary, communications to save life/property.

Clearly this is a regular organization, with ongoing, regular operations. If they need radio communications they should obtain commercial licenses in all the countries they operate from and purchase commercial equipment.

May I remind that our ham bands were invaded and burdened in the 1970's and 80's by missionary groups evading regulations and conducting routine business until the FCC cracked down.

Please, stop violating the letter and spirit of internal treaties, FCC regulations. Don't conduct business for groups like this. bill
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K3UG on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
What's the FCC got to do with an operation in Honduras?
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by W8RBT on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Great story. The pictures are fantastic and really add to the story as well. Were you working NVIS or longer distances? Curious what the green LED device to the left of the radio is. Is that an amplifier? Thanks again for the story and keep up the good work!

W8RBT
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by AF7EC on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
God bless you and your wife! Despite the grumpy negative comments, I think it's great you helped underprivileged people, no matter where they are. We are all human beings, and helping here at home as well as in other countries is important.

Keep up the good work wherever you might find yourself! :D
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KB4QAA on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Well the FCC doesn't have authority of Central American ops. However the author specifically mentions using a station in the US for relay, hence a violation of FCC regs.

In any case, this operation violates the spirit and letter of ITU regulations and treaties.

It's just plain wrong use of ham radio frequencies.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K7RBW on November 16, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the kind words and support!

To answer some of the questions.

1) The lights to the left of the radio are those of the AC power supply. When the generator was running, I'd run the radio off AC power, while charging the battery. The battery charger emitted a lot of noise, so I'd only run that while off-the-air (which was most of the time, actually). I ran the '857 at 100w or less all the time I was there. The propagation was so good, compared to my home QTH, that I often ran the '857 in low-power, battery mode which limits the output power to 20W. No point in using any more than necessary.

2) I can't really say anything about NVIS. At 40-meters, I'm not sure how much local propagation was plain-ol' ground wave and how much was NVIS. I've no way to know, but I'm guessing most of it was the former. The QSOs back to the states, I'm assuming, were just regular sky-waves.

3) It's a little confusing, but the trip we were on in the article was a medical relief mission. It wasn't a missionary trip, nor were we operating under the direction of a missionary group; although we did work with the one mentioned in the article. IHS is a secular NGO and 401(c)3 organization. The missionary group that is renovating the hospital at this site and operates the air ambulance is a separate organization. With regards to the use of amateur radio, the operations described in the article were conducted only in support of the medical relief mission. I understand, and actually agree with QAA's concerns, in principle, but they don't really apply to this particular instance.

4) As to helping people here or abroad, we don't see that choice as mutually exclusive. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be able to help both. We can't solve all the world's problems, but we try to make a dent in them where we can.

Thanks again for the interest!
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by NM0O on November 17, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
This is a great story, and I like the way you're setting up a minimal, but highly workable, HF station in a difficult situation.

Keep up the good work. I've been an amateur radio operator for 35 years, and I see nothing at all wrong or sneaky or ... whatever with the way you're getting it done for medical relief. Good on ya!
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KG6AF on November 17, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
KF7ITG: "Think what you will about helping your neighbors first. That's just my point of view."

The world gets smaller every day. These *are* our neighbors.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KB6YH on November 17, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I have been on two IHS trips to Honduras as as ham radio operator-engineer. Each participant pays his or her way. We pay for travel expenses and our own food. We went to Honduras to help other humans. IHS has no religious affiliation. Taxpayers do not pay for any of this. IHS does wonderful work. IHS is a non-profit oganization.Therefore it is a non-commercial use of amateur radio It was a a great learning experience. People from IHS also worked with the Honduran Cruz Roja.( Red Cross)
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KB4QAA on November 18, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
IT's not a matter of who is paying for what. It is a matter that the use being made of amateur radio is for the regular business of an established organization doing its regular business.

Should the Battelle Memorial Institute be able to run construction using amateur frequencies? Should the American Red Cross use ham radio for coordinating driver deliveries of blood, plasma, etc.? For ordering janitor supplies, copy paper, etc?
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KB6YH on November 18, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
You say it is not an issue of who pays for what. I disagree.The word "business" is seldom applied to organizations like the Red Cross. "Nonprofit" organizations are not businesses. Here is The Merriam Webster definition of business:


: the activity of making, buying, or selling goods or providing services in exchange for money.


IHS services are free. The radios are being used to allow communication between people : doctors dentists,pharmacists, helpers to their relatives and friends back home and emergency communications.

Business is defined by who pays for what.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KJ7WT on November 19, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
@KF7ITG
You may be interested in this: http://www.ehow.com/how_5725460_dental-care-low-income-families.html
Or, just Google "free dental care" and check out the sites. Most kids who have dental problems are that way because their PARENTS are ignorant of the services available. The people referenced in the article have NOTHING like these services, and depend upon volunteers to provide them, not the U.S. Government. The USA already has many free clinics, especially in large cities, but smaller ones, too, staffed by volunteers, also.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KJ7WT on November 19, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Interesting article here:
http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.arrl.org%2Ffiles%2Fmedia%2FNews%2FARRL%2520appropriate%2520use%2520guidelines.pdf&ei=DOpsVPyRL4GiyATG34GoAQ&usg=AFQjCNEBENvVdg8gqM_mw0j0u4I_i7zQXQ&sig2=CrZYF2hyh9dTAHALJsumOA&bvm=bv.80120444,d.aWw
It seems that services such as described in the article are in a somewhat "gray" area, insofar as there in NOT a profit element, but the communications may NOT always be emergency in nature, and thus the missionary service could reasonably be expected to acquire satphones or other commercially available radio services. I think that the article establishes that the communications were sporadic, and typically only when necessary. It is unlikely that the FCC would see this as a rule-breaking situation, but bureaucrats love to show their power...
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KC3BNO on November 20, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Good article, thanks for posting it! KB4QAA stated that missionaries were improperly using ham radio in the past, until they were shut down by the FCC. I have been unable to find anything on the net about this. Could someone fill me in? Thanks.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K7RBW on November 20, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I'm not sure how to make it any clearer, but the trip described here was a medical relief mission, funded and staffed by volunteers. The missionary organization referenced is a separately organized and funded organization with whom we worked in one of the 10 locations we visited. The spirit of cooperation I saw on this trip was truly awe inspiring (yet another positive aspect of the trip).

It's possible that there may have been at some time, in some place, some organization abusing the ham radio spectrum, such as is described in the "Commercialization of Amateur Radio: The Rules, The Risks, The Issues" article linked by N6AFV. However, that has nothing to do with the trip described here. All of our amateur communications were in accordance with 97.111(a)(2). If you think there's any grey area at all, the paragraph from the article at the top of page 6 provides this guidance, "A good rule of thumb when evaluating a particular request for communications support is, 'Who benefits?' If public safety is the principal beneficiary, then §97.1 is being fulfilled. If the entity itself and not the general public is the principal beneficiary, then they should be encouraged to use radio services other than Amateur Radio."

If you saw the hundreds of people we helped at this clinic alone (a few of which are in the photos in the article), there'd be no doubt in your mind that amateur radio was helping the public good and embodying the purpose of amateur radio set forth in 97.1(e) as a "Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill."

I'm as much a defender of the ham-radio spectrum as anyone here. If this was a case of spectrum abuse, I wouldn't have posted the article to give it publicity and I wouldn't volunteer to return. In reality, it's an example that ham radio should be proud to be a part of.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KC3BNO on November 20, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I did not in any way mean to imply that you were abusing the rules of the amateur radio spectrum. Quite the opposite. It is not uncommon for people posting online to cite spurious examples to prove their point. I was looking for some clarity, that's all. Please keep up the good work.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by K7RBW on November 21, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks, again, to everyone for the support.

I wasn't directing my reply towards anyone in particular, least of all the vast majority who've been encouraging and supportive. At the same time, I didn't want anyone who might be interested to be dissuaded by the negative commentary and innuendo.

You can read more about these trips in the QST article I list at the end of the article. It provides a well-written account of the mission and goes into detail about how ham radio is used in its support. The article is 10-years old, but very little has changed.

Thanks again for the overwhelming support! I'd be happy to make a QSO with anyone while I have my /HR8 call!
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KJ7WT on November 22, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Well, after hearing some of the conversations on the HF bands, taking up spectrum as the participants talk about their digestive upsets and how hard it is to mow their lawns, I have no problem at all with the use of ham radio as described in the article. Unfortunately, it seems that too many government officials like to remind us that they control things, and create mountains out of molehills. I'd much rather ham radio be used to help people, and I am all for what you all did there.
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by JOHNZ on November 23, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
The wannabe barristers in here who have self-appointed themselves to determine if missionary type radio communications are legal or not are the same rotund old men who sit behind their radios munching on cream-filled Twinkies and washing them down with copious amounts of fermented hops beverage. The same personality delights in QRMing rare DX, while bragging what their current DXCC standing is. While they are quick to criticize the good works of the people in Honduras, they contribute nothing to ham radio themselves, except criticism for people employing ham radio to perform humanitarian work. Where do you find these wannabee barristers most of the time? Just tune to 14313, their favorite frequency.

Notice in the photos with this article. The people doing this work in Honduras are slim, fit, and trim, and I bet they derive a sense of satisfaction and meaning in life that the Twinkie-eating beer-guzzling rotund wannabe barristers will never enjoy.
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by WB8ISG on November 23, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I was on the IHS mission to Honduras in 2010. Although I initially signed up as a radio amateur, once they found out I was a board certified urologist, I was assigned to lead a surgery team. It was a great experience, but I really had wanted to take a break from medicine and do radio instead. I ended up performing 43 surgeries in nine days!
This is a GREAT experience for us as human beings and as ham radio operators. Consider it--it's a way to "give back" for all the great things we have in this country.
 
RE: Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by KC9PWT on November 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
how you give back is your business, if you are operating in a foreign country and they dont mind your use of radio then why should it be of concern to anyone else.

good on you.
alex
 
Ham Radio Supporting Field Medicine  
by W4KVW on November 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I have been to Honduras twice with my local church but we did not make use of Ham Radio.We build Churches,Feeding Centers,& at least one Orphanage & have very little time for radio.It's great if it can be used & I'm sure it can be.I also had the pleasure of meeting Dan-HR2DMR while on my last trip after many QSO's on the air from here in Fla.Beautiful country with some great people but as in any country there are bad ones as well.

Clayton
W4KVW
 
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