Physician Runs Surgery Center to Assist the Underserved in Honduras

There are times when the most dire and barren circumstances produce bountiful sources of inspiration. Dr. Merlin Antunez, a native Honduran, recalls the deaths of two of his siblings when they were barely toddlers. Acute poverty, with no access to medical care, was at the core of the children’s fate. And he recounts his father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, which contributed to the demise of his parents’ marriage and left his father ill-equipped to care for his surviving children.

Antunez and two of his brothers eventually found security at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH), an orphanage about an hour outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras. NPH was established in Mexico and operates in Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Peru. While  Antunez’s basic needs were met at NPH, there was a lingering dissatisfaction that burned deep within—frustration that a medical condition led to the dissolution of his family. He remembers telling his brother that he wanted to become a physician to treat his father, and if that wasn’t to be, he’d work to heal others in his community.

So in 2003, a 22-year-old Antunez was pursuing his dreams and had a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Peter Daly, an orthopedic surgeon with Summit Orthopedics in Saint Paul, who was visiting NPH as part of a service trip with his family. His four children volunteered with the Honduran children, and Daly and his wife, LuLu Daly, a nurse, served at an outreach program for indigent adults and children. The experience connected Daly with Antunez, and, in addition to giving the young medical student a much-needed stethoscope, he also offered a steady friendship. “He’s a special man,” Antunez says. “We became very good friends.”

The Honduran experience inspired the Dalys to open the 5,000-square-foot Holy Family Surgery Center (HFSC) in 2008 on the grounds of the NPH. “I always wanted to do some global health initiative,” Peter Daly says. “I was exposed to the orphanage and fell in love with the dedicated people and the reality of the way they handled poverty.” The Daly family led the charge to raise $500,000 to launch the center,  which offers surgical services in the areas of ear, nose and throat, general, gynecology, ophthalmology, orthopedic (half of all surgeries) and urology. Daly explains that from 2009 through August 2015, there were 12,000 consultations and 1,700 surgeries. Dental and vision care are also available. Peter and LuLu travel to the center about every six weeks and are in nearly daily contact with staff. One-third of the Summit Orthopedic physicians have volunteered at the center, while the practice has also obtained supplies, packed materials and facilitated shipping. In addition, Summit Orthopedics raised $80,000 for a fluoroscopy machine, which allows for real-time X-rays during surgery.  

Antunez is now the center’s medical director. “This is a place where I feel satisfied because I can make a difference,” he says. “We’re trying to solve the surgical problems of the poor people of Honduras.” The Dalys hold Antunez in high regard.  “He’s a very talented doctor,” LuLu says. “He could go out and do anything and make a lot of money, but instead, he stays to help the family.” Antunez is not drawn to financial rewards. “Life isn’t just about money,” he says. “It’s about being happy with the things that you do. I just love waking up every morning and seeing my patients.”

The importance of center’s sustainability is not lost on Peter Daly. For it to survive and prosper, the center needs the infusion of talent and commitment from local residents. The orphanage’s mission includes vocational training;  Daly says that the only true way to achieve sustainability is that the center has to be part of the community. To that end, another former resident of NPH will join Antunez, as Miriam Garcia, a registered nurse, is preparing to become the HFSC’s nurse director.

It was also a priority for Daly that the facility welcomes entire families to experience volunteerism as a unit. “It’s a beautiful place to blend your children into a place that has 500 children,” he says, stressing the importance of encouraging children to remove their geographical and cultural blindfolds. Daly was first inspired to volunteer as a young boy growing up in Burnsville. “You could say it comes from the family I grew up with,” he says. “My parents advocated service. It was kind of understood.” Daly was also encouraged by his wife, who has a strong passion for service that extends back to her undergraduate days. As a college student, LuLu received a humanitarian award from St. Mary’s College in Indiana. While drafting their future as a young couple, the Dalys included service as a cornerstone. The births of their children and launching their careers took precedence for a while, but the couple held onto the dream—long enough to grab hold of the opportunity to open the surgery center. “This is our way of fulfilling the dream we talked about when we were 20 years old,” Peter Daly says.

The Holy Family Surgery Center’s values include faith, service, education, integrity, trust, compassion community and stewardship. Medical mission trips, called Medical Brigades, include health professionals who provide consultations to patients requiring surgery; they also give lectures on the health care system in Honduras, among other topics.

2016 Medical Brigade dates:
•January 9-16
•January 16-23
•February 6-13
•April 30-May 7
•June 11-18
•June 18-25
•September 3-10
•September 24- October 1
•October 15-22
•October 22-29

Additional information and ways to volunteer or donate are available by visiting the website here.