I want you to use your imagination for a second.
I want you to picture yourself inside of a church that has been neglected for some time. The paint on the walls is chipped and flaking off. The pews are starting to dry rot. There’s no air conditioning and it’s incredibly humid. People of all ages are crammed inside the church and it’s so loud you can barely hear yourself think. These people traveled here, mostly by foot, for free medical care, and you, a student, are the provider responsible for making the decisions about their health, even though you’re still in school.
Now, imagine that you signed up for this, not knowing what you were getting into, but excited nonetheless.
Piedras Negras is truly a beautiful city. It lies right across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Driving across the border is like traveling into a completely different world. It greets you with colorful buildings and tiny streets. There is a clear demarcation between rich and poor. Family comes before anything else. Health care isn’t widely accessible, and what is available is extremely expensive. Which is why I traveled there: to provide free clinics for those in need. I traveled there with only one other person that I knew, a girl who was in school with me, and around 25 other people from different PA schools and undergraduate programs around Kentucky. I was going to a foreign country for the first time, with people I didn’t know, to do something that I was still being trained to do. To say that I was nervous and self-conscious would be an understatement.
Our clinics were set up from 9 am to 3 pm every day in Piedras Negras. Each clinic had a registration desk, a waiting area, a provider’s area, and a pharmacy. Patients would come in, see a provider, and then be provided with free medications, vitamins, reading glasses, and toothbrushes. For most of the patients, there was nothing that a provider with limited resources could do. Prescribe some Tylenol for the pain, Benadryl for a stuffy nose, or some Amoxicillin for sinusitis. It doesn’t seem like much, but to the people of Piedras, it meant the world. They appreciated everything that was done for them – from looking in their ears to listening to their lungs. Even if there was no medications we could give them, they would hug you, thank you for just giving them 10 minutes of your time and reassurance that they were okay.
I could talk about the 92 year old grandmother who cried because the doctors couldn’t help her inguinal hernia that was rapidly enlarging. I could talk about the underweight 9 year old who refused to eat because his friends called him fat. I could talk about the former gospel singer who went to get an endoscopy and then lost his voice because the endoscope ripped out his vocal cords. And that would give you an idea of the kinds of patients we helped in Mexico and the types of medical presentations we saw. But it wouldn’t tell you how those patients helped us in our own lives.
A couple days into the trip, we visited a place called Casa Bethesda. From the outside it looked like a gated home in the middle of town. As we traveled inside, we were greeted with the smiling faces of the residents who lived there. Each person there has a disability – Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy. Some of the residents were continuously tied down to their bed to prevent them from hurting themselves, and crammed 10 patients inside a room barely big enough for two people. There were only four employees, total, for over 30 people. It was shocking and heartbreaking.
I wept over a woman named Brinda, a 30-something who had cerebral palsy. She was tied down because she would scratch her face until she bled, and she wore nothing but an old t-shirt and a diaper. As I sat with her and brushed her hair, she turned her head and smiled at me, a look of pure joy. At this point I had an “aha!” moment. These patients, who were probably going to be confined to their beds the rest of their life, were happy. They were smiling, every one of them, in spite of their disabilities. They were loved.
In school, we are taught about disease – how to recognize, how to treat. What I learned in Mexico couldn’t be taught in a classroom. I learned to put a face with illness; to put myself in their shoes and empathize. Essentially, the connection that healthcare providers should all develop in order to be successful in patient care. With missions, you learn that medicine isn’t about you, but it’s about the patients we care for, and developing that connection that is so crucial for medicine. To listen to their stories, to show love without judgment. I urge every healthcare provider, current and future, to travel to an underserved area, whether its 10 or 10,000 miles away. It changes you.
Courtney Hixson is a 2nd year Physician Assistant student studying at University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cumberlands in 2015 with a major in Pre-Professional Biology with minors in Chemistry and Psychology. Courtney started PA school in January of 2016. She just finished up a clinical rotation in the emergency room and will head to Eastern Kentucky to work in a rural family clinic for the month of June. She is interested in working in emergency medicine, internal medicine, and women’s health while concentrating on medically underserved areas. When she’s not studying my tail off for exams, she enjoyes yoga, writing, going on walks with her dog, and watching movies with her boyfriend. She blogs at caffeineandcardiology.com.