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Immigrant medicine north of the border

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Olivia Palomino’s latest trip to the dentist included a lengthy plane ride and a trip through customs.

Despite having U.S. health insurance, the Kings Beach resident and many other local expatriate Mexicans, often head to a doctor south of the border rather than brave the costs and unfamiliarity of the U.S. medical system.

The trips home become a minor exodus during school breaks when Latino families return to their native countries to visit family, pick up work and make appointments with family doctors and dentists.

“I know people who don’t have insurance; they struggle. And they have to try and take care of their medical needs [in Mexico],” said Sylvia Doignon, a longtime resident of Kings Beach, who grew up in Mexico.

While health care is primarily a financial concern, for some it’s also a matter of medical practices.

“They trust medical care better over there,” said Cesar Acosta, community liaison for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. “And also because it’s less expensive.”

“And a lot of parents feel that it’s better care over there [in Mexico],” Acosta added. “Doctors don’t just put you on pills and keep you coming … what people say is they don’t fool around over there.”

Even the idea of health insurance is different in the United States than in Mexico. Generally speaking, Mexican citizens won’t go to the doctor unless they are sick, said Sylvia Ambriz, executive director of the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.

“Their way of thinking and paying health insurance, they don’t really see the benefit of ‘wasting’ money every month if they’re not sick every month. For them, it’s a hardship,” Ambriz said.

Preventative health care in Mexico comes in the form of natural herbs, religion and spirituality, she said.

“If they’re close to God, … there’s a huge faith component to being sick and healthy,” Ambriz said.

The resource center is currently working to emphasize the significance of preventative health care and yearly exams, particularly for women’s health. The resource center and Tahoe Forest Hospital recently received a grant for a breast-education campaign to run in the next month.

“[We’re working] in shifting the mentality now that they live here in the States,” Ambriz said.

Language can also be a barrier for immigrants seeking medical care in the area. Some Latinos feel more comfortable with a doctor they can relate to and one they are sure will understand their complaints, Acosta said.

A few local health practitioners do speak Spanish, and Spanish-speaking translators are available through the family resource centers in Truckee and Kings Beach.

Crossing the border back and forth is much too risky for those without legal papers. And some of the Latinos who are here illegally do not qualify for health-care programs.

When undocumented immigrants do fall ill and need medical treatment, they are forced to pay for physician visits and medication in full, often borrowing money from friends and family, said Margarita de Nevarez, a Mexican native, Truckee resident and previous director of the Truckee Family Resource Center.

But health professionals at the Placer County Community Health center say there are a handful of health-care programs and scholarship options for both legal and illegal immigrants, including pregnant women, children and the elderly.

“There are so many ways to help people,” said physician’s assistant Dan Buchanan at the Placer medical clinic. “It’s just getting them in the door.”


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