Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, August 19, 2010.

UConn Clinic Tends to Migrant Workers' Health

Medical and Pharmacy Students and Others Make the Workers' Health Care Needs a Mission

By Ezra R. Silk

In 1997, when Dr. Bruce Gould and two University of Connecticut medical students discussed how they could provide free health clinics to migrant tobacco pickers across the state, they knew next to nothing about the state's migrant workers. They also didn't know if there would be enough interest or resources to sustain the program.

"Very few people in Connecticut realize that we're a tobacco state, and even fewer realize that there are people that have to tend those crops," said Gould, an associate dean at the UConn School of Medicine. "I'd read 'The Grapes of Wrath' in high school, but it's not like this was a calling."

Thirteen years later, with roughly 18,000 migrant workers in the state, the program offers 33 clinics from June to October at nine fruit and shade-tobacco farms in central Connecticut. Gould says it has more volunteers about 200 medical students, physicians, college undergraduates from across the state and high school students than he needs.

At the Jarmoc tobacco farm in Enfield earlier this week, about 15 medical and pharmacy school students, three Spanish-language translators and two licensed physicians were available for two hours for basic health checkups. But only three workers showed up.

While Gould said that up to 60 migrant workers show up each June when the summer program starts, workers are less likely to participate in August, when many already have received checkups at the clinics. But the variety and quantity of volunteers at the clinics point to the growing popularity at UConn of studying issues surrounding migrant workers.

"Migrant health has become part of the fabric of UConn," Gould said. "It's gotten to the point where I couldn't stop this if I wanted to. It's really become part of the culture of UConn, to its credit."

Several local institutions and organizations are either affiliated with or providing funds to the program, including the UConn schools of pharmacy, dentistry and physical therapy. Professor Mark Overmyer-Velazquez of the undergraduate history department at Storrs offers began offering a class in 2008, Migrant Workers in Connecticut, in which students are encouraged to participate in migrant farm worker clinics to fulfill the course's service learning requirement.

And in 2004, students at the school of medicine pushed to have University of Santa Clara Professor Francisco Jimenez, a former migrant farm worker who has written three autobiographical books, deliver the commencement address.

The program has emerged amid a tightening institutional embrace of community service at UConn, and especially at the school of medicine, where students are required to complete at least 15 hours of community service.

"I think what we have seen develop over the years is a culture of service among the students where they recognize that being a physician is a profession of service to others and so we strongly emphasize throughout the curriculum, your patients are part of a community," said Bruce Koeppen, dean of academic affairs at the school of medicine. "So we encourage our students to learn about the community in which their patients live."

Nikki Carreau, a second-year student at the school of medicine who has participated in two clinics this summer, said UConn students see community service as more than just a requirement.

"I think that the majority of medical students surpass the number of hours required," Carreau said. "Part of it comes from the fact that we are interested in coming from a profession where you have to serve people."

Carreau, who has volunteered with the Hartford health education program and worked at health clinics in Appalachia, said she's considering being a dermatologist or oncologist. At the clinics, which promise more "unusual" hands-on experience, Carreau said, she has inspected workers with gingivitis and fungal infections.

The clinics help instill an ethic of service in aspiring specialists like Carreau, Gould said.

"The hope is that even if someone becomes a super specialist, that there will be opthamologists that will volunteer to come out to the camps to serve the disenfranchised," he said.

Migrant Workers in Connecticut, a course on migration's history, sociology, economics and legal issues, reflects increased emphasis on migrant worker issues at not only at UConn but throughout academia, said Overmyer-Velazquez.

"Throughout the United States, the academy has always responded to the demands of demographic shifts in the country," he said. "We've seen in the past 10 years UConn hiring more professors that have migration as a specialty, and there are course offerings like this that begin to respond to these demographic changes."

Despite the passage of health care reform, Gould does not see the need for the migrant worker health clinics diminishing anytime soon, given that many workers are illegal immigrants. Gould acknowledges as much, and says that it's up to the medical community to take care of everyone, regardless of their citizenship status.

"Right now we are headed toward universal health care access," Gould said, "but it's going to be years before it is reality, and even when it is reality there are still going to be disenfranchised populations like migrant farm workers."