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Volunteer medical professionals are striving to bridge the healthcare divide for migrants in Chicago.
Science & Health

Volunteer medical professionals are striving to bridge the healthcare divide for migrants in Chicago.

Volunteer doctors utilize sidewalks as examination spaces and store medical supplies in large red duffle bags to provide care for the increasing number of migrants who arrive in Chicago without housing on Saturdays.

The majority of students participating in training programs visit police stations where newly arrived migrants are initially accommodated. They provide medical treatment by prescribing antibiotics, distributing prenatal vitamins, and identifying any potential serious health concerns. These student healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, and physician assistants, are the primary providers of healthcare for those seeking asylum in the third-largest city in the country. They are filling a void in Chicago’s inconsistent response to this population.

Sara Izquierdo, a medical student at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-founder of the group, stated that her team is necessary even though it shouldn’t have to exist. Without their efforts, she doubts anyone else would step up to fill the need.

Over the past year, a total of 19,600 migrants have arrived in Chicago due to the efforts of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has been sending buses to designated sanctuary cities. These migrants typically wait for extended periods of time at police stations and airports until they can be transferred to more permanent shelters, such as park district buildings.

FILE - Dr. Ray Mendez, right, examines Moises Abraham Hidalgo Sarmiento, 30, of Peru outside of the 1st District police station where migrants are camped, Oct. 7, 2023, in Chicago.

On October 7, 2023, in Chicago, Dr. Ray Mendez performed a medical examination on 30-year-old Peruvian migrant Moises Abraham Hidalgo Sarmiento outside of the 1st District police station where migrants were staying.

After being admitted to a shelter, individuals can utilize a county clinic that specifically caters to migrants. However, the approximately 3,300 individuals currently stuck in police stations and airports must depend on a combination of volunteers and social service organizations for essentials such as food, clothing, and medicine.

Months ago, Izquierdo recognized the lack of medical care and sought advice from experienced doctors. She created a street-medicine approach specifically for the medical needs of migrants. Her team makes regular trips to police stations, with a budget of $30,000 primarily used for purchasing medication.

Last Saturday, she was one of many medical professionals at a South Side location where migrants rest in the lobby, on sidewalks, and on an outdoor basketball court. The officers did not permit the volunteers to enter the station, so when a patient asked for privacy, their physician utilized their car.

After a period of five months, Abrahan Belizario finally visited a doctor.

The individual, who was 28 years old, experienced a headache, toothache, and chest pain. They had recently arrived from Peru, where they worked as both a driver and at a laundromat. Unfortunately, they were not able to adapt and ultimately succumbed to their conditions. They were not accustomed to the chilly climate in Chicago and believed that sleeping outside worsened their symptoms.

He stated that it was extremely chilly and they were on the brink of freezing.

The volunteers scheduled a dental appointment for him and provided him with a bus pass.

A significant number of migrants arriving in Chicago and other American cities originate from Venezuela, a country currently facing a severe social, political, and economic crisis that has resulted in millions living in poverty. Over 7 million people have fled the country, often taking a perilous journey on foot to reach the U.S. border.

The health issues faced by migrants often stem from their travels or residing in cramped environments. Common problems include back and leg injuries from walking, as well as easily spread infections due to poor hygiene. Limited access to indoor bathrooms and a lack of handwashing stations at outdoor portable toilets also contribute to these concerns. Additionally, many migrants do not have their medical records readily available.

Many also experience trauma, either from their country of origin or during the journey.

Miriam Guzman, one of the organizers and a fourth-year medical student at UIC, stated that while you may comprehend the language, it does not necessarily mean you comprehend the situation.

Doctors direct patients to mental health organizations, but there are restrictions. The ever-changing nature of the shelter system poses challenges for follow-up, as individuals are frequently relocated without notice.

The objective of Chicago is to furnish lasting residences in order to address health problems. However, the city has faced difficulties in handling the increasing number of people arriving by buses and planes at all times of the day. Mayor Brandon Johnson, who assumed office in May, considers this an ongoing issue and has suggested using winterized tents.

The administration has recognized the significant dependence on volunteers.

According to Rey Wences Najera, the first deputy of immigrant, migrant, and refugee rights, we were unprepared for this situation. He compared our actions to building a plane while in flight, and the plane is currently experiencing a fire.

The volunteer physicians have limitations on their abilities. Their duffle bags contain medicines for children, bandages, and even earplugs for those who want to block out sirens. However, they are unable to provide X-rays or address long-term health problems.

Ruben Santos, a medical student at Rush University, stated that it is not advisable to tell someone who has experienced this journey to quit smoking. Instead, one should adjust their approach in order to effectively assist them with their immediate needs, without relying on traditional methods typically used in a medical or academic setting.

The volunteers inform each patient that the service is complimentary, however, they are students. Skilled physicians, who are involved in the initiative, authorize treatment plans and issue prescriptions.

Providing individuals with the necessary medications poses another obstacle. During a visit to one station, 15 prescriptions were issued. Working on laptops while surrounded by numerous sleeping families, the doctors strategized which medics would retrieve the medications the next day and how they would locate the recipients.

FILE - UIC med student Sara izquierdo, right, speaks to other members of the Mobile Migrant Health Team outside of the 1st District police station where migrants are camped, Oct. 7, 2023, in Chicago.

On October 7, 2023, Sara Izquierdo, a medical student at UIC, can be seen conversing with fellow members of the Mobile Migrant Health Team outside the 1st District police station in Chicago, where a group of migrants are currently residing.

Occasionally, the volunteers may need to request emergency assistance.

Moises Hidalgo, who is thirty years old, reported difficulty in breathing. Upon examination, doctors noted a worrisome “crackling” noise and suspected pneumonia, prompting them to call for an ambulance.

Hidalgo, originally from Venezuela, relocated to Peru over ten years ago. In the past, he worked as a chef. Recently, he has been searching for employment in Chicago, but has been denied due to not having a work permit.

He stated that he has been attempting to secure employment in order to have a place to stay and if this issue is not resolved, he cannot continue to wait.

To keep himself from getting cold while sleeping outdoors, he dressed in four layers of clothing and tied his loose pants with a shoelace.

The medical professionals are optimistic that Chicago will officially adopt their strategy. They also state that they will persist in their efforts, as it holds personal significance for some.

Dr. Muftawu-Deen Iddrisu, employed at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, expressed his desire to give back. Hailing from Ghana, he pursued his medical education in Cuba.

He stated, “I come from a modest upbringing. I understand the feeling and I remember when someone did the same for me in the past.”