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Clients of the mobile clinic Luz Felix-Marquez started gather together.

Clients of the mobile clinic Luz Felix-Marquez started gather together.

Once a week, Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a first-year Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).

Today, we talk with 2007-08 New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellow Luz Felix-Marquez, a student at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who implemented a mobile clinic for migrant workers on Vermont’s dairy farms.  The clinic provided screenings, medical services, referrals to the closest health center, and health education.

Why did you develop your particular project?

Traditionally, the immigrant community has been underserved for many reasons. Over the last couple of years, immigration has regained its status as a hot issue in the political debate of this country. In March of 2006, many took to the streets in protest of legislation that would criminalize anyone helping an undocumented person. I walked with mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, and more than 500,000 individuals who believe that the House of Representatives Bill 4437 “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005” will not solve the immigration problems of this country.

Such legislation is not a new phenomenon. I can recall the climate of fear that spread around California in 1994 when Proposal 187 to deny social services, health care, and education to illegal immigrants made it on to the ballot and passed. Measures like this help drive already vulnerable immigrant communities further into the shadows.

In Vermont there are around 2,500 migrant dairy farm workers who labor hard to produce fifty percent of the milk generated in this state. Often, because of the long work hours, language barriers, and fear of deportation, migrant workers remain isolated from society.  The needs of the migrant community had been the subject of a health assessment published in October 2006 by The Vermont Department of Health, “Assessing the Health Care Needs, and Barriers to Care for Migrant Farm Laborers in Franklin, Addison, and Grand Isle Counties.” The report explored some of the barriers this group faced in their ability to access care in Vermont.

People in the community who had been working with this population wanted more than just another health assessment. Students at the medical school were interested in starting a student-run clinic. I decided to bring the two together. Covered Bridge Health Services (CBHS), in partnership with Open Door Clinic, emerged from this union to provide monthly health screenings and health awareness workshops geared for dairy farmers and their workers in Addison County, Vermont. Our goal was to improve health care access for underserved populations in Vermont. This project focused on creating an active, participatory role for both the health community and the farming community by:

  • Providing mobile health services
  • Presenting preventive health education workshops
  • Enabling medical students to explore the dynamics of rural health in Vermont
  • Fostering collaboration between agencies & health professionals to serve in the community
  • Identifying and helping to address health disparities in Vermont

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

The most pressing health-related issue for this generation is addressing the soaring costs of medical care and the ability to access it.  The irony of medicine in America is that we have medical advancements & technology to better treat disease, but many still die because they do not have insurance and seek medical attention when it is too late.

Today, as we witness the dawn of health care reform, I am struck by the critical role physicians play in shaping the changes.  We come to medicine wanting to help people feel better, but then we find ourselves navigating a maze of rules and regulations imposed on us by insurance companies.  I think it is important to get your experiences and stories out there for your community to hear, so that they can understand how policy is affecting real people.  Coming from Senator Bernie Sanders does not have the same impact as it would if it came from a more familiar voice.  All too often, our deepest desires to help and create change are quieted by our sense of not knowing enough.

What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

I was and still am astonished by the student clinic’s ability to bring people together from a variety of places: farmers, dental hygienists, nursing students, physicians, high school youth, world renowned authors, college students/professors, clergy, and immigrants.  We were all individuals from very different places in life, brought together to one place, to learn from one another.  We became sources of transformation for each other and for the community we so desperately wanted to help in the process.

The most endearing aspect of being a Fellow is that in essence we have been transformed and made better in the process of serving others.  The energy, enthusiasm, and pride of the other Fellows and colleagues towards my project was enlivening. I was humbled that what once was just an idea is now a very real tangible community project.  For the community, they saw that people genuinely cared about their well being. Both farmers and migrant workers felt that their community understood the hardships they were facing and wanted to help.

What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how have you carried it with you since your initial year as a Fellow drew to a close?

I have been inspired by many of the immigrant communities that I have had the privilege to serve.  Their faces, along with those of icons like Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chaves, Dolores Huerta, and now Albert Schweitzer, have planted in me the belief that change is possible and that it begins within each of us.  At the core of all these movements is reverence for life, that all persons deserve the right to live a life with dignity and respect. This principle has been the driving force in all of my work and will continue to guide me in the future.

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