By Catherine Olian
Dr. Elmer Mejia has dedicated his life to trying to save lobster divers severely injured with decompression sickness. The waiting area of his small clinic in La Ceiba, Honduras is often so packed with injured men that it resembles a combat clinic.
Dr. Mejia and his family work around the clock treating the divers, many of whom are paralyzed when they arrive. Often, Dr. Mejia serves as his own ambulance, racing to the port where the lobster boats dock to pick up the sick divers. He’s the only doctor in Honduras who specializes in treating the thousands of men who risk their lives diving for lobster on the ocean floor, most often without proper training or equipment.
“Without him, they’d have nothing, absolutely,” said Eric Douglas, a diving safety expert and author who has worked with Dr. Mejia.
He says the doctor has been able to cure divers even 4 or 5 days after they become paralyzed, something that most hyperbaric physicians thought was impossible.
“He does it without any desire for recognition. He just sees the need and wants to take care of his own people.” Douglas said.
Elmer Mejia grew up dirt poor in Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras. He became a Navy diver and medic, and in his early 20s volunteered to work at a clinic where he was exposed to the plight of the lobster divers for the first time. It was run by an Episcopal priest from Wyoming, Gus Sabrador, who became Mejia’s mentor and asked his American congregation to help Mejia go to medical school.
Mejia became a medical doctor with the mission of establishing a real clinic to help the divers, who are desperately poor and have no other medical care. He continued his studies in Texas where he was taught by a leading specialist in hyperbaric medicine, Dr. Caroline Fife. She says she was amazed by his determination to learn and succeed.
“He’s undaunted by impossible obstacles,” Dr. Fife said.
One seemingly impossible obstacle was to find – and get the money for – a hyperbaric chamber and get it to Honduras. The only way to cure decompression sickness and give paralyzed divers a chance to walk again is by using the chamber, but they can cost as much as $50,000., which was totally out of reach for the doctor. When Mejia heard that a used one was being refurbished in Virginia, he and his brother rented a truck and drove the two-ton chamber to Honduras themselves, a trip that took more than a week. Once again, the Episcopal parish in Wyoming helped raise money.
Today, the chamber creates miracles every day. Men who couldn’t walk often leave the chamber on their feet. Not everyone responds, unfortunately, and only newly injured divers are candidates for the treatment. The divers are poor and cannot pay but Dr. Mejia doesn’t turn anyone away. He says the only way he can stay in business is because he doesn’t pay his staff – everyone who works at the clinic is part of his family. Some of the boat owners help pay for the treatment of the divers, but the whole operation is run on a shoestring.
The devoted doctor says he’ll be there for the divers as long as they need him. He says he gets his satisfaction from seeing his patients, doomed to a life of paralysis without his help, get better and go home.
“I feel so pleased when they go back to normal, that is my payment,” Dr. Mejia said.
Editor’s note: Donations to Dr. Mejia’s clinic can be made through the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming. A tax-deductible fund has been set up (http://thefoundation.diowy.org/digital_faith/campaigns/3100013) to support the clinic.