CHICAGO — Using sidewalks as examination rooms and heavy red cloth bags as lockers for medical supplies, volunteer doctors spend Saturdays caring for the growing number of immigrants arriving in Chicago without a place to live.
Mostly student trainees, they go to police stations where migrants are housed, prescribing antibiotics, dispensing prenatal vitamins and assessing serious health problems. These medical, nursing and physician assistant students are the front line of providing health care to asylum seekers in the nation’s third-largest city, filling a void in Chicago’s disorganized response.
“My team is a team that shouldn’t exist, but exists out of necessity,” says Sarah Izquierdo, a medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who helped found the group. “Because if we don’t, I’m not sure anyone will.”
More than 19,600 migrants have arrived in Chicago last year, since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending buses to so-called sanctuary cities. Migrants wait at police stations and airports, sometimes for months, until a place becomes available in long-term shelter, such as park district buildings.
Once they arrive at the shelter, they have access to the district clinic designated exclusively for migrants. But the 3,300 people currently stuck in police stations and airports must rely on a mixture of volunteers and social service groups to provide them with food, clothing and medicine.
Izquierdo discovered the lack of medical care months ago, consulted experienced doctors and designed a street medicine model adapted to the medical needs of migrants. His group makes weekly visits to police stations, with a very small budget of $30,000, which is spent mainly on medicines.
On a recent Saturday, he was among dozens of doctors at the South Side police station, where migrants sleep in the lobby, on sidewalks and on the outdoor basketball court. Officers would not allow volunteers into the center, so when a patient requested privacy, his doctor would use his car.
Abrahan Balizario saw a doctor for the first time in five months.
The young man, 28 years old, was suffering from a headache, toothache, and chest pain. He had just arrived from Peru, where he worked as a driver and washerwoman, but was unable to survive. He was not accustomed to the cold climate of Chicago and believed that sleeping outside would worsen his symptoms.
“It’s so cold,” he said. “We almost froze.”
The volunteers booked him a dentist appointment and gave him a bus ticket.
Many migrants arriving in Chicago and other American cities come from Venezuela, where a social, political and economic crisis has thrown millions of people into poverty. More than 7 million people have left, often risking a dangerous journey on foot to the US border.
Migrants’ health problems are often linked to traveling or living in overcrowded conditions. Back and leg injuries resulting from walking are common. The infection spreads easily. Cleanliness is a problem. There are few indoor bathrooms and outdoor portable toilets lack sinks. Many people do not keep their medical history.
Most of them also suffer from trauma, either from their home country or from the trip itself.
“You can understand the language, but that doesn’t mean you understand the situation,” says Miriam Guzman, one of the organizers and a medical student at UCI.
Doctors refer patients to organizations that help with mental health, but there are limitations. The changing nature of the shelter system makes monitoring difficult; People are often transferred without warning.
Chicago’s goal is to provide permanent homes, which can help alleviate health problems. But the city has had difficulty coping with population growth, with buses and planes arriving at all times every day. Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May, described the issue as a long-standing problem and suggested setting up dedicated winter tents.
His administration has recognized the heavy reliance on volunteers.
“We were not prepared for this,” said Ray Wences Najera, senior deputy for migrant and refugee rights. “We’re building this plane as we fly it and the plane is on fire.”
Volunteer doctors are also limited in what they can do: They carry children’s medicine, bandages and even earplugs in their bags because some migrants want not to hear the sirens. But they cannot perform X-rays or treat chronic problems.
“You wouldn’t ask someone who’s been through this journey to quit smoking,” says Ruben Santos, a medical student at Rush University. “You’re changing the way you’re trying to communicate with that person to make sure you can help them meet their most pressing needs without doing some of the traditional things you might do in an office or in a large academic hospital.”
The volunteers explain to each patient that the service is free but that they are students. Experienced doctors, who are part of this effort, approve treatment plans and prescribe medications.
Obtaining these medications is another challenge. The station visit resulted in 15 recipes. Working on laptops on the floor near dozens of sleeping families, the doctors planned which doctors would receive the medications the next day and how they would find the recipients.
Sometimes volunteers have to call for emergency help.
Moises Hidalgo, 30, said he was having difficulty breathing. Doctors heard an alarming “cracking” sound, suspected pneumonia, and called an ambulance.
Hidalgo, who arrived from Peru after leaving his native Venezuela more than a decade ago, previously worked as a chef. He had been wandering around Chicago looking for work, but was turned away without a work permit.
“I’ve been trying to find a job, at least so I can pay to sleep somewhere, because if this isn’t resolved, I can’t keep waiting,” he said.
To keep warm while sleeping outside, he wore four layers of clothing; His baggy pants were held tight with a drawstring.
Doctors hope Chicago can formalize its approach. They say they will continue to do so, because it is personal for some.
Dr. Muftudin Iddrisu, who works at the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, said he wanted to return the favor. Originally from Ghana, he studied medicine in Cuba.
“I come from a very humble background,” he says. “I know how he feels. I know someone once did the same thing to me.”
-Translated by José Luis Sanchez Pando/TCA
“Social media evangelist. Student. Reader. Troublemaker. Typical introvert.”