I walked into the exam room to a familiar scene. Two men sat before me looking worn and tired. Their interpreter stood alert, ready to help me give them the care they needed.
One was 18, the other in his mid-30s. The younger man was clean-shaven and well-dressed. He complained of a persistent cough and a sprained ankle.
I asked as I always do to immigrants, “How long have you been in the U.S.?”
Through their interpreter, a longtime patient of mine, I learned that both men had entered the U.S. from Mexico through Laredo. The 18-year-old was forthcoming with answers to all my questions.
“How much did you have to pay the coyote to get you here?”
At that point, the interpreter broke in. “He is my nephew. His mother saved up the money for him to come be with me because he cannot find work in Mexico. He’s worried about the cough because someone else on the crossing was very sick. He’s worried it might be TB.”
The other man was in pain too. “He is my brother,” the woman said. His lower leg was red, swollen and very tender, and I was worried he might have a compartment syndrome which would require surgery. I took an x-ray and luckily one of the retired orthopedists was there to examine him with me. He thought it was just a very bad bruise, but I still scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week.
While waiting for his x-ray, the patient began talking to Claudia, one of our other interpreters.
She told me, “There is more to his story than he told you.”
When it comes to these cases, there always is.
As he told me his story, tears began rolling down his cheeks. Married with four children, he had resorted to begging to pay his bills because he could not find work in Mexico. To pay the coyote to help him cross into the U.S. where he could most certainly find work, he made the decision to sell his car, the only thing of value he had. That got him $3100, but then the coyote demanded that he pay another $1000 for security. Obviously, he didn’t have it. The coyote threatened to leave him in the desert or turn him over to a drug cartel at the border. Miraculously, his sister found a way to wire him the money.
She said, “I had to do it. He is my brother.”
I assured him that I could help him with his leg. After all he had been through, I was glad to deliver him a sliver of good news. It would take some time for his leg to fully recover, but I knew he would be alright within a couple of weeks provided he stayed off his leg at work and rely on crutches to get around.
His face fell again.
“I cannot pay for the crutches.”
I assured him that we would give him the crutches.
As for not working, I knew there would be no way to stop him so I just tried to lay out some parameters so the problem wouldn’t worsen.
As they were leaving, everyone was smiling. I knew that both men would heal soon and that for a time they would find a bit of security knowing that as long as they worked, the Church Health Center would provide them with medical care.
Still, I just feel so sick to my stomach that this is what happens every day on the border of my own country, in order to come to my city, in order to become my patient. All this money and all this fear is put on the line just for the chance to have a better life.
A life where you can work freely and provide for your family.
A life where you do not have to beg to feed your children.
A life where you do not have to pay a bribe to a drug cartel in order to work honestly.
A life where you are willing to work hard and are not breaking a law when you step into the Rio Grande River.
It was in the Jordan River that Jesus felt God’s presence. On this issue of caring for immigrants is the one place where I’m clear as to God’s will for me.
Each month at the Church Health Center, we hold an All-Staff Meeting. New employees introduce themselves to the entire organization and share an interesting fact about themselves. At our last staff meeting, every single new employee said that they speak Spanish. Some even speak multiple languages.
I have no excuse for not learning Spanish myself, but there will never be a time that a person’s country of origin will be a barrier to our care. When it comes to caring for the working uninsured, we have no impediments, both literally and spiritually.