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Father and son help heal the sick in East Timor

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May 4, 2011

By Mike Dyer

ST. LAWRENCE DEANERY — Richard Hoehn Sr. has traveled to Italy and China in the past four years, but those trips were quite different than a recent mission trip to East Timor. He and his son, Richard Hoehn Jr., spent four weeks in the capital city of Dili last October, helping residents who lack medical necessities that are so commonly found in the United States.

The Hoehns play with a child during their trip to East Timor. (Courtesy photo)

One of Asia’s poorest nations, with a population of 1.2 million and a per capita income of about $2,500, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste relies heavily on outside help. The country, located in the eastern part of Timor, an island in the Indonesian archipelago that lies between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, was colonized and controlled by the Portuguese for nearly 400 years. After they pulled out in 1975, the land was annexed by Indonesia. Unrest developed when the locals began resisting Indonesian control; they gained independence in 2002 after two decades of fighting.


Hoehn Jr., a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cincinnati, suggested his father join him for the trip to East Timor. The two worked together for four weeks at a clinic that saw an average of 300 patients a day.


“When I arrived at the clinic, I had no clue what I was in for,” said Hoehn Sr.


Hoehn Sr. said he saw people die in front of him because they lacked medical equipment necessary to help them. He said it was a grim reminder of the lack of resources in the country, which has a poor infrastructure, including its healthcare system, and is prone to drought.


“I was completely blown away by the medical poverty,” Hoehn Jr. said. “We admitted a man one day from one of the refugee camp; he had HIV. He was 42 and looked 70. He had HIV for so long without treatment that he had almost no white blood cells to fight off infection and literally died on rounds one morning a week after he got to the clinic. We saw so many patients with diseases that were so critically advanced that we could do nothing but make them comfortable.”


Hoehn Sr. said he often worked a minimum of 12-hour days for six or seven days a week. He helped in any way possible, whether it was cleaning, maintenance, unpacking supplies or helping patients with nutrition and physical therapy.


“All you have to have is a will, and you will find what you need to do,” he said.


Hoehn Jr., a 2003 graduate of St. Xavier High School, had an outreach experience in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine as a student there. During college, he took several mission trips to Monticello, Ky. He also spent four weeks in Bangkok, Thailand, working at an orphanage for disabled children. The four weeks he worked in Dili was his first volunteer experience as a medical student.


“I knew I wanted a developing world experience in med school, which I hadn’t had before, and not one in a hospital with a bunch of other students,” Hoehn Jr. said. “I wanted something with very limited resources that really took me out of my comfort zone so I could see how medicine works for the majority of the world’s population.”


Hoehn Jr., who, along with his father, is a member of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Price Hill, found the Bairo Pite Clinic via a Google search as he looked for international medical student electives.


“I knew I had the month of October free and I wanted to do something international because it is a passion of mine,” Hoehn Jr. said. “I had no idea where East Timor was but, based on the website, it was exactly what I was looking for.”


The Bairo Pite Clinic is the most visited health clinic in East Timor and serves a variety of needs, from maternity and infant care to malaria, dental services and training of local health care workers.


“The experience in East Timor changed my life in many ways,” Hoehn Jr. said. “I have never seen poverty and a lack of infrastructure and resources like that before. The electricity cuts out city-wide repeatedly throughout the day.”


Hoehn Sr., who has been the owner of Bridgetown Finer Meats for 32 years,  believes God had a plan for him to first visit Italy and China — vacation trips that got him familiar with traveling abroad — before making a journey to help those in need in East Timor. He said the mission trip helped him fulfill Christ’s call to help others, and reflecting now on the opportunity to apply his Catholic faith “practically brings tears to my eyes.”


“I just had a huge acceptance that these are God’s people as well,” Hoehn Sr. said.


Since returning to the United States, Hoehn Sr. said he has been proactive in trying to find ways to get medical supplies to East Timor. He discovered money could be sent to an account in Australia where a doctor can buy the medicine wholesale for a more cost-effective and direct approach.


“The need is not going away,” he said.


Hoehn Sr., who is a spiritual care volunteer at a hospice center in Cincinnati, has been involved with a charity, Christmas Jesus Poor, Inc., for 12 years. He has set up a program through which donations can be earmarked for medications to help the people in East Timor. Contributions can be sent to Christmas Jesus Poor, 2139 Neeb Rd., Cincinnati, Ohio, 45233. Please write “Bairo Pite Clinic” in the memo line of the check.   

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