Volunteer medical students seek to fill Chicago’s immigrant health care gap

CHICAGO — Using sidewalks as exam rooms and heavy red duffel bags as medicine storage, volunteer doctors spend their Saturdays joining a growing number of immigrants arriving in Chicago without a place to live.

“My team doesn’t need to exist, but it exists because it does,” says Sarah Izquierdo, a medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped found the group. “Because if we don’t do this, no one will.”

More than 19,600 immigrants came to Chicago last year since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending buses to so-called sanctuary cities. Migrants wait in police stations and airports, sometimes for months, until long-term shelters like park district buildings become available.

Once in the shelter, they have access to a county clinic specifically for immigrants. But the 3,300 people now stranded at police stations and airports must rely on a motley crew of volunteers and social services to provide them with food, clothing and medicine.

Izquierdo noticed the health disparities several months ago, consulted with experienced doctors, and designed a street care model tailored to the medical needs of immigrants. Her group visits police stations every week, and she operates on a budget of $30,000, with most of the money going toward medication.

On a recent Saturday, she was among dozens of health care workers at the South Side station where migrants slept in the lobby, on the sidewalk and on an outdoor basketball court. Officers wouldn’t allow volunteers inside the station, so when one patient requested privacy, the doctor used his car.

Abraham Barisario visited a doctor for the first time in five months.

A 28-year-old man had a headache, toothache, and chest pain. He had recently arrived from Peru and worked as a driver and at a laundromat, but he was unable to make ends meet. He was not used to Chicago’s balmy weather, and he believed that sleeping outside would make his symptoms worse.

“It’s very cold,” he said. “We almost freeze.”

Volunteers made him a dental appointment and gave him a bus pass.

Many of the immigrants landing in Chicago and other U.S. cities come from Venezuela, where social, political and economic crises have pushed millions into poverty. More than 7 million people have left the country, often risking dangerous routes to the U.S. border on foot.

Immigrant health problems tend to be related to traveling and living in crowded environments. Back and leg injuries from walking are common. Infectious diseases spread easily. Hygiene is an issue. There are very few indoor toilets, and outdoor portable toilets do not have hand-washing stations. Not many people carry their medical records with them.

Most people carry trauma from their homeland or from the journey itself.

“You may understand the language, but it doesn’t mean you understand the situation,” said Miriam Guzman, one of the organizers and a fourth-year UIC medical student.

Doctors refer patients to mental health support groups, but there are limits. The fluid nature of the shelter system makes follow-up difficult. People are often moved without warning.

Chicago’s goal is to provide permanent housing that may help alleviate health issues. But with buses and planes arriving at all hours of the day, the city is struggling to manage its growing population. Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May, said it was an inherited problem and suggested winterized tents.

He acknowledges that his administration relies heavily on volunteers.

“We were not prepared for this,” said Rey Wences Najera, acting chief of staff for immigration, immigration and refugee rights. “We’re building this plane while we’re flying it, and the plane is on fire.”

Volunteer doctors are also limited in what they can do. Their duffel bags contain medication for the child, bandages and even earplugs for migrants who wanted to block out the sirens. However, they cannot provide X-rays or address chronic issues.

“You can’t tell someone who has gone through a journey like this to stop smoking,” said Ruben Santos, a medical student at Rush University. “We change the way we connect with that person to ensure that we are meeting that person’s most pressing needs without doing the traditional things that you would do in an office or a university hospital.”

Volunteers explain to each patient that the service is free, but that they are students. Experienced physicians participating in this initiative approve treatment plans and prescribe medications.

Getting medicines to people is also a challenge. In one station visit, he was issued 15 prescriptions. Working on laptops on the floor, close to dozens of sleeping families, doctors planned which doctors would receive the drugs the next day and how to find recipients.

In some cases, volunteers may need to call for emergency help.

Moises Hidalgo, 30, said he had trouble breathing. Doctors suspected she had pneumonia after hearing a disturbing “crackling” sound and called an ambulance.

Hidalgo, who left his native Venezuela more than 10 years ago to come from Peru, used to work as a chef. He roamed all over Chicago looking for his job, but was turned away without his work permit.

“I’ve been trying to find a job to at least pay to sleep somewhere, because I can’t keep waiting unless this problem is resolved,” he said.

He wore four layers of clothing to keep warm when sleeping outside. His loose pants were tied with shoelaces.

Health officials are hopeful that Chicago can establish a formal approach. And they say they’re going to keep doing it — some say it’s personal.

Dr. Muftau Dean Idris, an advocate at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, said he wanted to give back. He is originally from Ghana and attended medical school in Cuba.

“I come from a very poor family,” he said. “I know how you feel. I know someone did the same thing to me at some point.”


Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder contributed to this report.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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