A nurse at Los Alamos National Lab brings her skills — and heart — to help in Honduras

For 15 years, Shannon Griffin has volunteered to give free medical care to Hondurans, and this year she shared that experience with her son

September 27, 2023

Shannon estimates that she’s helped 8,000 people at the Honduras clinic over the years.

An occupational health nurse at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Shannon Griffin first traveled to Olanchito, Honduras, in 2006. She’d come to the town of 100,000 people as the only nurse on a team of doctors that had volunteered to provide free medical care to residents. Shannon figured they’d help a few dozen families and then be on their way. But after the team set up inside a clinic, Shannon opened the door to the courtyard and saw men, women and children camped outside and a line that wrapped around the block. 

“There were people from across all of northern Honduras,” Shannon said. 

“Everyone comes back with a feeling that’s almost indescribable, except to say that it’s nice to do something that’s not for yourself.”

The team Shannon worked with specialized in phlebology, diagnosing diseases and problems with veins and leg ulcers. It was her role to triage the patients, and that first sight of the crowded courtyard left Shannon feeling overwhelmed. “Especially because on that trip I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish.”

She quickly learned to say push, empuje, because the clinic’s door swung out, and she learned to ask the patients to please sit, por favor sientase. At the end of the week, she was exhausted. But she was also filled with the most wonderful sense of joy. “I liked the camaraderie,” Shannon says, “and everyone comes back with a feeling that’s almost indescribable, except to say that it’s nice to do something that’s not for yourself.”

Shannon and her son, Maclain. Photo courtesy of Shannon Griffin

The volunteer missions are organized by the Hackett Hemwall Patterson Foundation, and Shannon has returned every March for 15 years since that first trip, apart from two years during the pandemic. Nearly every year since her son could talk, he has asked what she does on these trips. Now a teenager at Los Alamos High School, he went along with her this year for the first time. 

Out of the cold 

Shannon’s path to this volunteer work, and to Los Alamos National Laboratory, seems in retrospect a series of coincidences. In the early 2000s, Shannon and her then husband, Justin Griffin, who also works at the Laboratory, lived in North Dakota, where on average the state experiences 50 days of 0-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. “It was a cold January night and we got into our frozen car,” Shannon remembers. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to move out of this state.’”

Justin worked for the state health department at the time, inspecting radioactive material. So, he looked around for something comparable in the Southwest. Within a year he’d found a job, traveled to the Lab for interviews, and when he returned home he dropped a newspaper on the table. All right, he said, I found my job and now it’s your turn. Right there in the Los Alamos paper Shannon found a local doctor hiring for a nurse. She applied, and soon they’d packed a truck for New Mexico. 

The doctor Shannon worked for specialized in phlebology, which Shannon knew little about. The most common condition doctors in this specialization encounter is varicose veins, which is when veins lose elasticity and cause the valves that control the directional flow of blood to weaken. This can lead to poor circulation, pooling blood, even blood flowing the wrong direction. Genetics, weight, age and jobs that require a lot of standing can all increase the likelihood of varicose veins. But it’s most common in postpartum women, especially among women with repeated pregnancies.

Shannon’s 15-year-old son, Maclain (in the orange mask), helping at the Honduras clinic. Photo courtesy of Shannon Griffin

The doctor for whom Shannon worked had participated in volunteer trips to Honduras before, and he suggested that she give it a try. Shannon had always wanted to sign up for Doctors Without Borders, and this experience promised to be similar. So, she went. 

Shannon continued with the work even after she left the Los Alamos clinic in 2017 for a job at the Lab, where she works today as an occupational health nurse. 

“I did the math recently, and I estimated that the Honduras clinic probably sees on average 550 people each year,” Shannon says. “Over all my trips, that’s 8,000 people I’ve been able to help.”

In Honduras there are five doctors for every 10,000 people, which according to the World Health Organization is extremely low. There are 29 doctors for every 10,000 people to the north in El Salvador; Guatemala has 12.5 per 10,000. Access to hospitals can also be tricky in Honduras, as most health-care facilities are in the cities. But nearly half of the population lives in rural, mountainous areas where health care is hardly accessible, and specialties like phlebology are not an option. 

Touching down

When Shannon and her 15-year-old son, Maclain Griffin, arrived in Honduras in March, they met with the other volunteers at the San Pedro Sula airport. They boarded a van and drove six hours along the coast to Olanchito, where the clinic was little more than an open corridor divided with hanging sheets.  

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, so the group always has a safety meeting. They don’t go into town. They never walk out of the building alone. And if you have any concerns, ask the group’s hostess, a knowledgeable local woman who is called the unofficial mayor of Olanchito. “She knows everyone,” Shannon says. “She’ll tell us where there were gunshots the night before, but always reminds us that we don’t need to worry because she has made sure that everyone knows we’re here to help.”

This may have worried Maclain, and Shannon asked whether he was enjoying the trip so far. “Uh,” he replied with teenage indifference, “I don’t know, Mom.”

Like every year, the line of patients was nonstop. They treated hundreds. Day after day, Shannon and her son dressed in scrubs to help triage patients. Shannon mixed the solution for the varicose vein therapy, which are shots injected into the veins and that help firm the linings and ease blood flow. Without the shots, the stagnant blood in the veins can turn to ulcers and this can lead to infections, or worse, life-threatening blood clots.  

After several days, Shannon saw her son recognizing how appreciative the people were when they arrived. She listened to him remark on how happy they were as they left. Some of the patients even remembered Shannon from prior years, and the appointments had the feeling of reunions. 

By the end of the week, when it was time to leave, Shannon asked her son once more if he’d enjoyed the trip. Would he want to return next year? 

“He was really excited,” Shannon says. “I’ve been going down since he was first born, and it was incredible to share the country, the people and this work with him. It’s still hard for me to put into words the joy I get from volunteering. But I think as we left, he understood.”