In Spanish, he complains of dizziness, shortness of breath, and numbness on the left side of his body. He says his name is Mario and he’s a migrant farmworker.
As the doctors mull over Mario’s condition, one physician turns to a young man in a white coat, “So, what should I tell the patient to do to get better?”
The young man hesitates, “We need to send him somewhere to get lab tests done.” The team nods in agreement; that’s the right answer.
But this young man is no doctor. He’s a first-year medical student in the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine’s Longitudinal Primary Care Track (LCPT), a program that provides 20 students with the opportunity to care for underserved populations, specifically, migrant farmworkers.
Since November, LCPT students have visited El Paso’s Migrant Farmworkers Center to help treat farmworkers free of charge. The clinic takes place on Thursday nights with students and supervising doctors sometimes staying as late as 10:30 p.m.
“This project focuses on improving students’ leadership, mentoring, and patient advocacy skills to help them develop professionally,” says Charmaine Martin, M.D., who started LCPT. Dr. Martin is an associate professor in TTUHSC El Paso’s Department of Family and Community Medicine.
Dr. Martin started the program this past summer after receiving a $330,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). LCPT is designed to spark medical students’ interest in primary care, but also to expose them to the poor and often underserved community of migrant farmworkers.
About 12,000 farmworkers from Mexico currently work in the Southern New Mexico-El Paso region in agricultural labor. On average, each farmworker makes $9,000 a year for a family of four; well below $23,850 — the poverty level of a family of four living in the U.S.
“It has been a real eye-opener,” Dr. Martin says. “The center has been very welcoming to us and we are learning a great deal about the history and the plight of the workers.”
PLFSOM students are enjoying the experience. They’re eager to get hands-on clinical training early on in medical school, but also to have the opportunity to make a difference in the El Paso community.
“It’s been really rewarding because the farmworkers are all so grateful because they don’t normally receive health care,” says first-year med student Emily LaBerge. “They thank us so much when they’re leaving [the clinic] and it’s clear how much they appreciate our help.”
Students jot down the migrant farmworkers’ height, weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels as soon they arrive at the clinic. The patients then fill out a form about their health history and describe their symptoms to the budding doctors. With experienced physicians overseeing the process, the students conduct a physical examination and then attempt to diagnose the patient.
“Listening to some of the things [migrant farmworkers] go through everyday is like nothing I’ve ever imagined,” says LaBerge. “One man told us how he travels three hours each way on a bus to get to work everyday. That made me think twice about complaining about having to sit through 20 minutes of El Paso traffic.”
Dr. Martin says it’s been exciting to watch her students work in the clinic and enhance their primary care experiences and abilities. One of her chief goals is to increase the number of primary care doctors in Texas by sparking student interest in the field early on.
Her plan seems to be working.
After seeing the dire need for health care in the migrant farmworker community, LCPT students are planning to set up a permanent student-run clinic at the center. Their hope is to provide free, primary care services on Saturdays, in addition to Thursday evenings.
One student at the clinic explained, “These people need help, and who’s going to help them if we’re not here?”
Additional TTUHSC El Paso faculty and staff involved in the LCPT project are unit coordinators Jennie Steinkamp and Gerardo Alvarez, and Associate Professors of Family and Community Medicine Oscar Noriega, M.D., and Mary Spalding, M.D. El Pasoans Juanita Mendez, R.N., and Lawrence Beard, M.D., also volunteer at the clinic.