|LAREDO, August 25 - When Mercy Ministries was applying for a grant to integrate the work of its clinics to include mental and behavioral health it hit a snag - there were no psychiatrists in Laredo.
Having a psychiatrist was a key part of the application for funding and so Mercy and the foundation making the grant had to regroup and attack the issue in another fashion. But, the grant process will continue to move forward, said Rosanne Palacios, director of development for Mercy Ministries of Laredo.
“Finding a psychiatrist is like gold. Finding a psychiatrist who speaks Spanish is platinum,” Palacios told the Guardian.
The difficulties of providing health care and health education in the underserved areas of Webb County were shared with attendees of the 8th Annual Border Health Conference by Palacios and Webb County Commissioner Rosaura “Wawi” Tijerina on Friday. The conference attendees visited the colonias of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo south of Laredo, with Palacios explaining Mercy’s work at the Larga Vista Community Center.
“We wanted to integrate our programs so there is behavioral health along with mental health. There is a huge lack. The foundation making the grant did not know we did not have a psychiatrist. They knew we had a problem. They just did not realize how bad it was,” Palacios explained.
A former senior manager at IBC Bank, Palacios has worked for Mercy Ministries of Laredo for five years. She said she thought she knew poverty, having block-walked in the poorest communities for local political candidates. However, she said it was only when she started working for Mercy that the scale of the challenge became apparent. “I thought I knew poverty. But, these last five years I have lived it. These people are trying to better their lives and our role is to educate them,” Palacios said.
Over 40 attendees at the conference made the visit to Larga Vista Community Center and the two colonias. They heard Palacios explain the challenges Mercy Ministries faces. Its staff operates out of the community center every other Monday, providing health education to the underserved. Its promotoras go door-to-door in the colonias, checking on the health and wellbeing of mothers and children. Mercy also provides a mobile clinic to help those who lack the transportation to get to the community center.
“We have this huge need for preventive care, this huge need to teach people how to be healthy,” Palacios told the VIPs visiting the center. “Our families make an average of about $15,867 a year. I challenge any of you to have a family of three on that salary. They are the working poor. They work at a fast food place. They do not have insurance. They are doing everything they can to make ends meet.”
Palacios said she would add two other ingredients to the three primary things doctors look for when considering a colonia resident’s health. In addition to diet, exercise and whether they smoke, Palacios would add poverty and illiteracy.
“They do not know they are supposed to get mammograms at aged 40. They do not know they are supposed to go for a colonography at aged 50. They do not know they might have a chronic illness like diabetes. When we tell them that they have diabetes they say, no we don’t. They are in denial,” Palacios said.
“If we catch the diabetes early we might be able to get rid of it. It is about education. They may come (to the community center) for food or clothing or to check out a book but we can also offer them health education.”
Palacios said it can be really tough when a Mercy promotora discovers that a colonia resident has breast cancer. “There is no money for treatment. Yes, we can tell them you have breast cancer but we have to say we cannot help you with that. That is a tough sell. If someone is diagnosed we work with them. Luckily, the hospitals and doctors give us reduced rates. They help. We find ways to journey with them.”
Palacios said some people come to the community center and explain they have nothing to eat. She said that while they get fed, they also get educated. She said Mercy has developed a game of bingo that teaches those coming to the center about preventative health. They can win a prize but they are also being educated. The hope is that those that visit will then tell their friends what they have learned.
“This is not a free clinic. We ask every patient to make a co-pay, dependent on their ability. That is to preserve their dignity and respect. They want to part of their healthcare, they don’t know how,” Palacios said.
The Guardian asked Commissioner Tijerina what she would like the conference attendees to take back to Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Tijerina said: “We need them to tell the message that we need more health services, more doctors, that we need immigration reform and that we need more public transportation.”