Schweitzer Fellow Katia Chavez’s interest in ensuring access to care for Hispanic migrant workers is deeply personal: Nine years ago, her parents left their friends and family in Peru and emigrated to the U.S. so that she and her brother could have better educational opportunities. Chavez watched her parents struggle in the job market—and with health care providers—because they could not speak English. Chavez’s college-educated father wound up as a cook for a Florida hotel chain, and Chavez accompanies her parents to medical appointments so she can translate for them.
“They get anxious when talking to a doctor who does not share their language or culture,” Chavez explains. “Sometimes they are looked down upon just for not speaking English. There is a wrong belief that immigrants lack education, culture, and manners, especially among the medical elite.”
So it’s no surprise that for her Fellowship Project Chavez chose to focus on improving access to health care for migrant Hispanic farm workers. Chavez, along with Schweitzer Fellow John “Nez” Nesbitt, evaluated the delivery of culturally-sensitive health services to Hispanic migrant workers at five clinics in Northern Vermont’s Lamoille County.
Nesbitt and Chavez used the results of their observations to devise sensitivity training, which they delivered to 80 workers at their partner organization, Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley (CHSLV) in Morrisville. The pair also assisted CHSLV in translating new patient medical forms, sliding scale fee applications and waiting room signage.
Additionally, Chavez and Nesbitt educated staff on the proper use of a medical language line for Spanish-speaking patients. And, of course, they worked directly with migrant workers on dairy farms, assisting 20 of them in completing medical paperwork and getting connected to a local clinic so they could more easily access health care should the need arise in the future. The University of Vermont College of Medicine students also took time to educate farm owners about nearby clinics and how to connect their employees to health care.
Nesbitt says CHSLV and other clinics with which they worked embraced the Fellows’ recommendations. “It’s quite encouraging and empowering to be in a position where my ideas can make contributions that matter,” he says. “These small triumphs feel sweeter during the first two years of our medical training, when so much newness makes us consistently feel like rookies. I know that our trainings have improved levels of cultural sensitivity among providers and staff at each of the five clinics with whom we’ve worked.”
Like Chavez, Nesbitt also has a personal connection to his service project: “Serving these needs back in my home state of Vermont has added extra meaning to this project for me.”
Nesbitt’s work on the project is also a natural outgrowth of his strong commitment to a model of care in which medical providers reach out directly to marginalized people. “I’ve prioritized community outreach along my unconventional path to medicine,” says Nesbitt, who has accompanied street nurses on their rounds along Vancouver streets at night to working with villagers in the highlands of Guatemala. “My background in social science has enabled me to engage diverse audiences. I feel equally at home in the fields registering migrant workers as I do in the clinics preparing providers to work with this vulnerable group.”
While pleased with the impact their individual project has had on communities in northern Vermont, Nesbitt is also proud of the connection that being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life gives him to the global effort to address health inequities. “In many ways our fellowships represent great changes on the horizon as our generation begins assuming roles of responsibility within our chosen professions,” he observes. “With these projects we’re creating these changes in small waves to shape a better future. Ultimately, the triumph of each success paves the way for more moving forward.”
Being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life is equally as meaningful to Chavez, but for a more personal reason. “When I read about Albert Schweitzer’s life and that God was the foundation of all his life and work, I felt that was the exact same way God talks to me every day,” she explains. “Being a Schweitzer Fellow is a reminder of what motivates me to continue working to make things better.”
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