Hunt School of Nursing Students Help Vaccinate 4,200 Mexican Citizens at Port of Entry

Hunt School of Nursing Students Help Vaccinate 4,200 Mexican Citizens at Port of Entry

TTUHSC El Paso lends a hand to El Paso County’s efforts to vaccinate maquiladora workers

Dozens of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso students journeyed to the Tornillo Port of Entry by sunrise on July 15 to join the county’s effort to vaccinate both sides of the border.

Students from the Hunt School of Nursing administered thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to maquiladora workers from Ciudad Juárez at the port of entry.

“I hope each vaccine is one step closer to us getting back to normal,” said third-semester nursing student Abigail Balbuena. “Vaccinating our neighbors in Juárez helps everyone in El Paso because of how we are all intertwined. We are one large community with a lot of love on both sides.”

Several buses shuttled 40 workers each across the bridge. Once there, it took less than six minutes for them to exit the bus, receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and return to the bus, which turned around before the toll gate and returned to Juárez.

“We’re seeing about 150 people every five minutes or so,” Balbuena said. “It’s a difficult task, but I think it’s worth it because we’re one border community, and we’re helping to get the border opened again someday. I know quite a few people are missing their families. I have family in Juárez, and I can’t wait to see them again.”

For several weeks, El Paso County led an effort to vaccinate 30,000 maquiladora workers. On July 15, Hunt School of Nursing students helped El Paso County Emergency Services and constables administer 4,200 shots. Also volunteering regularly were individuals from the Foster School of Medicine and TTUHSC El Paso’s El Paso Health Education Awareness Team (EP-HEAT), led by Jessica Chacon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of immunology and microbiology.

“TTUHSC El Paso provided amazing assistance to us today. The 25 students who came out without any hesitation helped us tremendously,” said Emergency Services District No. 2 Chief Rogelio Esparza. “This is a great opportunity for them to learn what they’ll be doing out in the field. We’ve all been there learning our different jobs, and this is typically how you learn – by doing.”

Providing that type of help is common for TTUHSC El Paso medical, nursing and biomedical sciences students. Every year, they provide over 19,000 service hours to the Borderland community. In addition to community service, the Hunt School of Nursing’s curriculum also prepares students for leadership positions in hospitals and clinics. 

Rhonda Sparr, D.N.P., R.N., clinical professor at the Hunt School of Nursing, said students are perfecting their skills, such as administering vaccines, by taking the lessons from the classroom and applying them in the field repeatedly.

“This is a fabulous experience for them. This is where we take what we learn in the classroom and in simulations and apply it to patient care,” Dr. Sparr said. “Perhaps the most important lesson taught is the moral obligation to help our community, and that includes both sides of the border.” 

Victor Lopez, a third-semester student, said part of the reason he chose the Hunt School of Nursing was because he knew he would get opportunities to help the community.

“We’re honored to vaccinate people on both sides of the border. We also want to remind our neighbors in Juárez how much we care about them, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Lopez, who joined his classmates before sunrise to travel to Tornillo, a small border town in El Paso County east of El Paso city limits. “It took about an hour and 20 minutes to get from El Paso to the port of entry and set up, but being part of the medical field, it’s our job to be up early and travel.”

Third-semester nursing student Julianne Herrera said she would gladly wake up and travel to make a difference in the Borderland.

“I personally think it’s amazing to help our neighbors in Mexico, not only because they’re over there and working through the pandemic, but also because it’ll help them encourage others to get vaccinated and have a positive impact on both sides of the border,” Herrera said. “Overall, it’s a great experience to make a difference and work in a nontraditional setting.”

Cecilia Ochoa Levine is the president of US/Mexico/Canada Strategic Alliance, which partnered with El Paso County and the Medical Center of the Americas to make vaccinations at the border possible. She said it was exciting to see future health care heroes of El Paso in action. 

“Today we saw the students come into the trenches with us. The buses come in quickly, but they’re vaccinating the workers without any problems,” Levine said. “We’re also working with MCA and TTUHSC El Paso to help share information throughout Juárez about COVID-19. We’re educating them on how to identify if someone is infected, how to care for them and the importance of the vaccine. All that information came from TTUHSC El Paso.”

TTUHSC El Paso is one of only two health sciences centers designated as Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions – and the only one on the U.S.-Mexico border. Its mission is to prepare the next generation of health care heroes, with 48% of 2020-21 students identifying as Hispanic. The university also serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved, including El Paso. A majority of TTUHSC El Paso students come from these nearby communities and remain in the region and/or return to El Paso to serve the borderland upon graduation and completion of training.  

Before the establishment of the Hunt School of Nursing, El Paso County faced a 40% shortage of nurses when compared to the national average. As of 2020, the Hunt School of Nursing has educated more than 800 nursing students with nearly 90% staying to practice in the region. 

The Foster School of Medicine has seen similar impact, producing over 600 medical graduates since it opened in 2009. As a result, El Paso County has seen a 57% increase in physicians, a direct result of having a four-year medical school in the area.

Check out our photos from the vaccine clinic: