Friday, October 6, 2017

"I spy"... a reflection from a medical student helping Iowa migrants with healthcare

By Amanda Mclearn- Montz

“I spy something blue…” I was driving through the Iowa countryside with two kids, and we were passing the time with the classic “I Spy” game. We spied the things most people see when they traverse Iowa: corn, cows, cars, rivers. We also spied something hidden to most eyes: the migrant worker camp where the kids lived.
Located behind an old farmhouse on a gravel road, most people never pass by the camp. Those that do often mistake it for part of the farm and never give it a second glance. But this past summer, my eyes were opened to see this camp and others like it. I worked as a health aide for an organization that provides health services to migrant workers and their families. Through this work, I learned the stories of the hidden camps’ residents, who are often as invisible to society as the places they live.

I learned one of these stories the day I played “I Spy.” As a health aide, I often transported migrant workers and their families to appointments in Iowa City. On “I Spy” day, I was accompanying the two kids, a brother and sister pair, to the free pediatric dental clinic since their parents were occupied with their work in the fields. I picked the two kids up from their summer school program, and we spent the drive from Williamsburg to Iowa City playing “I Spy” and talking about life. The kids told me about their dreams of becoming dentists and described the various places they had lived. Their family had bounced around the country for years following the agricultural jobs, and each sibling had been born in a different state. The sister mentioned how she liked Iowa and did not want to leave. But soon her parents’ jobs de-tasseling the corn would end, and her family would have to migrate again if they wanted to survive. After our car-ride, we spent the rest of the day at the dentist. I held the kids’ hands as the dentists worked on their teeth and consoled them when the noisy drills scared them. At the end of the appointment, the little brother was distraught with fear and pain. His older sister became a substitute mother and shared her stickers and a hug to comfort him, but I was heartbroken his actual mother could not be there. When he calmed down, I took them back to their camp. After that day, I saw them intermittently at the mobile clinic we took to their camp, and they always greeted me with smiles and hugs. But one day, they were gone. Their family had moved on to the next job.
Another story I learned this summer was of a woman from Mexico. She did not have a car, so I drove her to her first dental appointment in years. During our time together, she told me about her life. She recounted coming to the United States and making her home in rural Iowa. She described her happiness to find friends and a husband here, but she still missed her family in Mexico every day. Her English was limited, so I translated and assisted her through the appointment which revealed to me how scary and intimidating the healthcare system can be. We started the appointment by filling out forms. Despite being in Spanish, the forms were complicated and hard for her to understand. Her confusion became fear when the forms asked about residency. She was undocumented and worried revealing this to the dental clinic would result in deportation. I reassured her that she would be fine, although my own stomach had dropped and I was scared for her. Thankfully, the dental clinic was unconcerned about her documentation status and focused on repairing her teeth. When the appointment finished, I returned her to the chicken farm where she worked, and she thanked me for my help. I was grateful to her as well for sharing her story and showing me a glimpse into her life as a migrant worker.

After this summer, I will never look at the cornfields of Iowa in the same way. Now I will see the homes of migrant workers and be reminded of the stories I learned. The people I met as a health aide have struggles and fears I cannot imagine. They need support and advocates so they can receive the rights and services they justly deserve. I hope their stories have inspired you to “spy” the migrant workers around us and to be one of the advocates they greatly need.

 Mclearn- Montz is a second-year medical student at the University of Iowa. Her interests include global health, pediatrics, peace-making, and ice cream!  

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