Life Flight

January 21, 2009

Medical Economics joins a volunteer group's monthly mission to a clinic in rural Mexico.

In fluent Spanish, Theresa Ullrich, an RNP at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, asks a young Mexican woman about the stomach pain she’s been experiencing.

The woman, who traveled from a town 20 miles away, had been waiting since 5 a.m. with her infant daughter and grandmother at a clinic in the village of Jesus Maria in the peninsular Mexican state of Baja California. Her family sought medical attention from a group of volunteers from the Orange County California chapter of an organization that calls itself the Flying Samaritans.

The woman pulls a small empty bottle of antacid out of her pocket and shows it to Ullrich, saying it helps reduce her discomfort. After several more questions and a brief abdominal examination, Ullrich leaves the exam room and returns with bottles of a similar antacid, a bag of multivitamins, and some dietary instructions.

Back in Orange County, Ullrich might have consulted with her hospital’s family physician, who would’ve likely performed more tests or prescribed a newer medication. But in Jesus Maria, Ullrich’s only tools are a small room of donated pharmaceuticals, a stethoscope, and her own skill and experience. The antacid will have to do for now.

“There are several patients that rely on our services, that need to be seen for their medications and supplies,” says Ullrich. “Then there are some who have access to medical care, but come in to see if were can provide more or different services; those patients frustrate me because they use resources that could go to patients in need.”

The Orange County chapter of the Flying Samaritans, which has 10 chapters in Southern California and Arizona, has traveled to the Jesus Maria Clinic since 1987. Every second weekend of the month, dozens of patients from the dusty village and surrounding towns seek medical and dental care there, their families in tow. Although the clinic is located across a courtyard from Mexico’s government-funded medical clinic, it is the foreign volunteers who are preferred. (The government clinic apparently offers little more than a diagnosis and aspirin.)

The 20 or more volunteers are flown to Mexico by members of the organization who own their own planes. On this mission in mid-December, only 12 volunteers could make the journey. They land on an dirt airstrip outside the village early in the morning and stay until the last patient is seen or until dark when, according to Mexican law, it’s illegal for private airplanes to travel, says pilot and Orange County chapter President Victor Jones.

“There’s always a big group waiting for us,” Jones says. “Even during the winter, we usually get to everybody. We’ll stay late if we can.”

After the exam, Ullrich’s patient, one of 20 men, women, and children she saw that day, smiles and shakes the nurse practitioner’s hand. Ullrich compliments the woman’s sparkling gold nail polish. A little friendly bedside manner can provide some comfort too.

“I believe in what we are doing at Jesus Maria,” says Ullrich, who has visited the clinic six times. “I believe that we provide much-needed access to health, vision, and dental care.”