• Volunteer medical workers – and patients – make do with limited modern supplies in an isolated village.
CHARLOTTE LOWE For the Tucson Citizen
BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico – The smell of fresh green chiles searing on the stove top’s gas flame wafts through the house as Tucson’s Flying Samaritans continue their medical mission in El Rosario, an isolated village here.
One old woman, smiling through broken teeth, has walked five miles to bring flour tortillas, says Jeannie, one of the missionaries who lives here. She and two neighbors make lunch for the doctors, although it’s only 10:30 a.m.
Hortense, a sad-eyed woman in a blue knit cap, is called into the dentist’s office. On the double bed lay dental supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste and a couple of flashlights. There are two chairs that don’t go up, down or lean back.
Michael Don, an orthodontist who has been flying with the Sams for several years, peers into her mouth while interpreter Blashill holds the flashlight.
”She has heavy buildup around her gums, and scaling,” he announces. ”We didn’t bring any heavy cleaning tools, but I’ll scrape off what I can and do more next month.”
Blashill takes a break from her interpreting to take a Polaroid picture of a woman who just had three teeth extracted. She poses proudly with her five daughters and three sons, all dusty from the long walk to the clinic.
Lew Leavitt, a new dentist on board, brought the camera – a big hit all around. ”I saw kids 5 and 6 and 7 years old who had never seen themselves in a picture,” he marvels. Leavitt is repairing a tooth ”with a whole lot of decay,” he explains.”I took it out with hand instruments and no pain killer. She’s very brave.”
His patient is pregnant, so Leavitt uses no anesthesia. For patients not at risk, the Sams carry local anesthetic, although most refuse it, Don says.
They grip the chair and shut their eyes. Some have their children or their mothers at their sides. One teenage boy has a very painful infected tooth, which must be pulled. Tears roll down his cheeks.
Blashill grips his shoulder and tells him he is ”fuerte,” very strong. Another word she says a lot is ”Duele.” Pain? she asks, as she strokes foreheads and holds hands.
The Tucson Flying Samaritans is one of two Arizona groups working in Mexico; the other flies out of Phoenix and has clinics elsewhere.
California Flying Samaritan groups also offer their services to other Mexican towns. But Tucson’s Sams are the only ones taking care of El Rosario, a fishing village with a population of about 4,000.
Very few charities exist in most Mexican towns, especially small ones such as El Rosario where free or adequate medical and dental care is limited or non-existent.
Today the Sams are adding something new to the usual clinic services: toothbrushes. Kids are running around everywhere, brandishing toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste, novelties to the vast majority.
Lunch is barely observed. Many doctors take their plates into their ”examining rooms.” El Rosario’s mayor is standing in the parking lot, waiting for his wife to be seen.
She has brought her X-rays of a former spinal injury. Dr. Wright Cortner is holding them up to the window and asking her questions. A cow moaning outside threatens to drown out all conversation.
”Send a doctor!” someone jokes. ”We got a sick cow out here.” A doctor goes out. He returns later a little glum. ”She was being butchered,” he reports. ”Before she was dead, they slit her throat. But they didn’t wait until she died to start cutting her up.”
Cortner is examining a child who had a fever and an upset stomach last week. Now she only has a stomachache, but just a little one. She and her mother leave with a month’s supply of Flintstones vitamins and the admonishment, ”Remember, just one a day.”
Many come in just for the vitamins, explains one nurse. ”But they eat them all at once. The kids are hungry, and they think the vitamins are candy.”
In an hour or two, all will be finished for the day. Around 4 p.m. the Sams start to wrap up, stacking their equipment. ”Amazingly, today we saved more teeth than we took,” says Don. ”We did lots of temporary fillings.” If enough dentists come next month, or the month after, those will be replaced with permanent fillings.
This has been the first time out for a glowing Cortner, who says he hasn’t done this kind of work in years. The last case he saw today was a man who had been paralyzed in a car wreck, a quadriplegic. ”I feel bad there wasn’t more we could do,” he says. ”And I saw a guy who had cataracts and I know how easy that could be dealt with back home . . .”
But both the new volunteers, Cortner and Leavitt, say they’ll be back. There will be two more Flying Samaritans helping out the best they can.
”We’re a well-oiled machine,” says nurse Lisette Le Corgne, with satisfaction. ”That’s because everyone wants to work.”
This is the second of a two-part series on Tucson’s Flying Samaritans, who offer health care in remote areas.
• Yesterday: Volunteers hit the ground running.
The Flying Samaritans is a volunteer, non-profit and nonsectarian organization of pilots and health-care professionals operating 22 clinics in Baja California.
Flying Samaritans chapters share four missions: primary care, specialty care, education, and emergency care. There are chapters in Tucson and Phoenix, and 20 chapters in California.
Members usually travel to the clinics the second weekend of each month, and work Saturday and part of Sunday.
For more information, contact Lisette LeCorgne, N.P., Campus Health Service, University of Arizona, Tucson, 85721. Or call 621-4427 or fax 621-8412.
An alternative number for LeCorgne is 325-9505. The Flying Samaritans’ Web site is at www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/1134.n.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photos by Brion McCarthy
Bev Blashill (right) holds a flashlight while Flying Samaritans’ dentist Lew Leavitt examines a patient at the clinic in El Rosario, an isolated town in Baja California, Mexico.
Orthopedic surgeon Wright Cortner uses the light from a window to inspect an X-ray.