It's Easy For Migrants To Get Sick; Harder To Get Treatment

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Tucked in the corner of an old school gym, adults and children regularly line up in front of Dr. Bert Johansson. They are migrants, waiting for treatment at a pop-up clinic in El Paso, Texas.

The clinic doesn’t look like much — it’s no more than a circle of folding chairs around a table spread with medical supplies.

Yet, for migrants recently released from federal processing facilities, this clinic could mean the difference between life or death.

Earlier this month, two Guatemalan children died in U.S. custody, spurring questions over the quality of medical care at Border Patrol processing centers. Federal officials have since ordered more rigorous medical screenings of child migrants.

Community volunteers are also responding to the arrival of Central American families fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States — with pop-up clinics at local shelters. These clinics are staffed by volunteers such as Johansson and run entirely on goodwill.

Donations pay for basic medical supplies: cough syrup, hydrogen peroxide and diaper rash ointment. Otherwise, volunteers bring their own supplies.

“A lot of us brought our own stethoscopes and otoscopes and over the counter medicines. We had some ways of getting prescription meds,” Johansson said. “We just lined up the kids and saw them.”

Sometimes volunteers don’t have all the supplies they need. Recently, Johansson wanted to test a Guatemalan man with lesions on his foot for diabetes. He couldn’t because he didn’t have a blood glucose detector.

They ended the appointment without being able to test the patient.

High risk of children getting sick

Some of Johansson’s patients have been vomiting, some are coughing and others are severely dehydrated. Many are children.

Medical experts have raised concerns about conditions inside federal processing facilities. Numerous eyewitnesses have told NPR that migrants are held in crowded, unsanitary, windowless spaces, sometimes on the floor, for days, often with little more than a thin Mylar blanket to keep them warm.

Experts say it’s an easy place for anyone to get sick, especially kids.

As a pediatrician who works at the El Paso Children’s Hospital, Johansson takes special care with his youngest patients. He high-fives them and after one 10-year-old boy gulps medicine from a cup, Johansson calls him “mi hermano,” meaning “my brother” in Spanish.

Johansson has already admitted some children to the hospital for various issues such as bacterial infections, pneumonia, and severe dehydration.

He said the ailments he sees among migrants might have been milder if they had been treated sooner.

This was the case in 2014, when Johansson volunteered to treat migrants at pop-up government shelters within hours of their apprehension. Now, he says he can’t treat migrants until days later, because they spend more time in federal processing facilities. Customs and Border Protection has yet to explain why.

Volunteer doctors are working overtime

Johansson is just one of many in a group of volunteer doctors and nurses who are working overtime to help migrants. Many of them put in 60 hours a week at their regular jobs, then come to makeshift shelter clinics in their free time.

This kind of work is not new for Johansson, whose previous volunteer stints include treating patients in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But he specifically moved down to the border from New York because he said he felt that he could do some good there.

Helping migrants holds special meaning for him — he is the son of immigrants. Johansson’s father is Swedish. His mother is Honduran.

“I see my mother when I see these women,” he said while crying. “These are very poor, very vulnerable people, who obviously love their children and they want a better life.”

The first patient Johansson treated, back in October, was from his mother’s hometown.

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Since the death of two Guatemalan children earlier this month in U.S. custody, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered more rigorous medical screenings of child migrants in detention. In El Paso, community volunteers are also responding with pop-up clinics at local shelters. Reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe spent some time at one of these shelters with a pediatrician who treats migrants. She joins us this morning to tell us more. Good morning.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila. Good morning.

FADEL: So what are these pop-up clinics, and why do they exist?

ORTIZ URIBE: They began in response to a flood of Central American families coming across the border over the last three months. These families are spending days in processing facilities that are overcrowded and unsanitary. So it’s easy to get sick, especially if you’re a child. Those families who’ve been released with a future court date end up at shelters in border cities like El Paso. And it quickly became clear that they needed medical attention. So community organizers set up these makeshift clinics supplied by donations and staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. Here’s Dr. Bert Johansson, a local pediatrician.

BERT JOHANSSON: A lot of us brought our own stethoscopes and otoscopes and over-the-counter medicines. And we had some ways of getting prescription meds. And we just lined the kids up and saw them.

FADEL: So what sort of cases is he seeing?

ORTIZ URIBE: Well, he’s seeing severe dehydration, bacterial infections and pneumonia. And he’s admitted some children to the hospital. And, you know, he told me he can tell these conditions might have been milder had these migrants had better access to medical care sooner. Back in 2014, when we had a big wave of unaccompanied minors, Dr. Johansson told me he visited a pop-up government shelter where he was treating kids within hours of their apprehension. Now he’s not seeing migrants until days later. And that’s because they’re spending more time in these federal processing facilities. And as of now, it’s unclear why. Customs and Border Protection has yet to answer that question.

FADEL: And I understand some of these volunteers are pretty passionate about what they do. Can you talk about that?

ORTIZ URIBE: Yes. So, for example, Dr. Johansson, better known as Dr. Bert – he’s the son of immigrants. His father is Swedish. His mother is Honduran. Believe it or not, he says the first patient he treated back in October was from his mom’s hometown.

JOHANSSON: These are very poor, very vulnerable people who obviously love their children. And they want a better life. I see my mother when I see these women.

ORTIZ URIBE: So as you can hear, Dr. Bert, like so many of the volunteers, clearly empathizes with these families. He and his colleagues work 60-hour weeks. But here they are on their own time without compensation helping these families. Being right on the border, El Paso has a rich immigrant history. It’s often referred to as the Ellis Island of the Southwest. And newcomers continue to show up at its doorstep.

FADEL: Well, thank you so much for your work. That’s reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso. Thank you.

ORTIZ URIBE: You’re welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.