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,” Griffin says.
“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 Griffin 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 her 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,” Griffin 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.”
The volunteer missions are organized by the Hackett Hemwall Patterson Foundation, and Griffin 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
Griffin’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,” she 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 Griffin worked for specialized in phlebology, which she 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.
> Read the rest of this story in the Discover section of the Laboratory’s website.