Trip means chance to lend a hand

Posted Aug. 13, 2009, at 7:46 p.m.

“Our car looks like something out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” Sue said as she wrestled a card table into the back of her Honda Accord. “But I think it all just fits!”

Laden down with medical supplies, there was just enough room left in the car for its passengers: Sue, a nurse practitioner; Wanda, her translator and assistant; and me, her second assistant and extra pair of hands for this week on the eastern shore of Maryland. Sue is part of the Choptank Community Health System’s migrant health program. Today, like most days during summer harvest, we will drive to the rural migrant worker camps to care for sick workers who have no means of transportation to get to one of Choptank’s seven clinics.

The eastern shore of Maryland reminds me strikingly of Maine, only with more heat and humidity. Little towns are separated by rural stretches of fields; we will spend hours this week going from one area to another, stopping only occasionally in the single-traffic-light towns for a bite to eat. This agricultural, coastal area is home to elementary schools, churches, farms and small businesses. It is also home to a large number of seldom-seen migrant workers who spend as many as 16 hours a day working in the local fields.

“Is there any chance that you speak Haitian Creole?” Sue asks me as we pull off the main road and bump down a gravel lane flanked by cornfields.

“Sorry,” I say, shaking my head. “Just Spanish.”

“Oh, well,” she says. “We’ll need that, too.”

The men and women who work these transient agricultural jobs live in ramshackle cabins. Most go from harvest to harvest, always on the move, making it almost impossible for them to get any kind of regular medical care. Many are uninsured and struggle to provide for their families. They are those most marginalized in our society — poor blacks, American Indians, and Haitians and Latinos here on temporary work visas. They also are the ones who pick the food that we eat every day, an unseen sector of society whose health care is virtually nonexistent.

“So many of the people we see out here have the kind of long-term conditions that should be monitored, like diabetes and hypertension,” Sue told me as we bumped toward the work camp. “I try to get to each camp at least once a week — fees are on a sliding scale — and there are about 30 work camps in our area, about 500 workers in all. We can’t do everything we could do in a clinic, not by a long shot, but we can get a lot of basic care accomplished — assessments, prescriptions, even blood work.”

We park the car underneath a pine tree in front of a semicircle of small, run-down cabins. The workers are just coming in from the fields for a short lunch. Tired and hungry, they nonetheless wave and greet us as we get out of the car and begin to set up our small outdoor “clinic” with a card table and three folding chairs. Sue lines up tote bags of charts and a duffel bag full of medical supplies before briskly reapplying antibacterial gel on her hands from the pump bottle she keeps on the table.

“Who’s first?” she asks brightly, and a man in his 60s or 70s comes forward and plants himself in the chair. His eyes twinkle over his droopy mustache as he rolls up his sleeves for the blood pressure cuff. Sue asks him how the harvest is going and they chat comfortably while she takes his vitals. I record the numbers on his chart as Sue goes through the exam.

Before the men go back to work we have time to see a half-dozen patients, even taking blood samples from two patients; the small, labeled vials sit in a cooler with ice packs. These we will take to the clinic to be tested for everything from anemia to HIV.

Sue smiles as we drive off to find the next camp. “I love this work — you can really see the difference it makes in people’s lives. These people struggle just to make it from season to season, and the smallest things —teaching them how to control their diabetes, talking to people about how to manage their health — can make a huge difference in their quality of life. Many of them have never seen any kind of medical care at all, before this.”

Before we go, two of the workers silently bring us armloads of produce: fresh tomatoes, watermelons and cantaloupes. We thank them. At the end of a long day, these fruits will taste all the sweeter with the knowledge that we have helped.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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