Volunteer medical professionals in Chicago are utilizing sidewalks as makeshift exam rooms and storing their supplies in red duffle bags in order to provide care for the increasing number of migrants who have arrived without a place to stay.
Many students undergoing training visit police stations where they provide medical care to migrants who are newly arrived. This includes prescribing antibiotics, distributing prenatal vitamins, and evaluating for any critical health concerns. These student healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, and physician assistants, play a crucial role in providing healthcare to asylum-seekers in Chicago, filling in the gaps of the city’s disorganized response.
Sara Izquierdo, a medical student at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-founder of the group, expressed that her team is necessary despite the fact that it ideally should not have to exist. She believes that without their efforts, this important work would not be done.
Over the past year, over 19,600 individuals seeking refuge have arrived in Chicago due to the actions of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has been sending buses to cities known as “sanctuaries.” These migrants are forced to wait at police stations and airports, often for several months, until they can be accommodated at more permanent shelters, such as park district buildings.
After finding shelter, the group of people can visit a clinic specifically for migrants in the county. However, the 3,300 individuals currently stuck at police stations and airports must depend on a mix of volunteers and social service organizations for necessities such as food, clothing, and medication.
Izquierdo recognized the lack of access to medical care several months ago. She sought advice from experienced doctors and developed a street-medicine approach specifically for the medical needs of migrants. Her team conducts weekly visits to police stations, operating on a limited budget of $30,000, primarily allocated for medication.
During a recent Saturday, she was one of many medical professionals at a station on the South Side where migrants rest in the lobby, on sidewalks, and on an outdoor basketball court. Due to restrictions from officers, the volunteers were not permitted inside the station. Therefore, when a patient requested privacy, their doctor provided care in his car.
Abrahan Balizario visited a physician after a five-month period.
The individual, who is 28 years old, was experiencing a headache, toothache, and chest pain. They had recently come from Peru, where they held jobs as a driver and at a laundromat, but they were unable to make it through. They were not accustomed to the chilly climate in Chicago and thought that sleeping outside made their symptoms worse.
“It’s so chilly,” he remarked. “We’re on the verge of freezing.”
The volunteers scheduled a dental appointment for him and provided him with a bus pass.
Numerous individuals who arrive in cities like Chicago in the United States are migrants originating from Venezuela. In this country, a combination of social, political, and economic turmoil has resulted in millions living in poverty. Over 7 million people have fled, often taking a perilous journey on foot to reach the U.S. border.
The health issues of migrants often stem from their traveling or residing in densely populated areas. It is common to see back and leg injuries from extensive walking, as well as rapid spread of infections. Maintaining hygiene is a concern, as there is a lack of indoor bathrooms and outdoor portable toilets do not have handwashing stations. Additionally, many migrants do not have their medical records readily available.
Many also experience trauma, whether from their country of origin or from the journey they undertake.
Miriam Guzman, a fourth-year medical student at UIC and one of the organizers, stated that while someone may comprehend the language, it does not necessarily equate to understanding the situation.
Doctors may recommend patients to mental health support organizations, but there are challenges. The ever-changing nature of the shelter system makes it challenging to track progress, as individuals are frequently relocated without prior notice.
The aim of Chicago is to offer long-term housing, which could potentially improve health problems. However, the city has faced difficulties in handling the increasing number of arrivals by bus and plane at all times of the day. Mayor Brandon Johnson, who assumed office in May, refers to this as a preexisting problem and has suggested using winter-proof tents.
The government has recognized the significant dependence on volunteers.
“We weren’t ready for this,” said Rey Wences Najera, first deputy of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights. “We are building this plane as we are flying it and the plane is on fire.”
Volunteer physicians have restricted capabilities. They carry duffle bags containing medications for children, bandages, and ear plugs for migrants who wish to drown out sirens. However, they are unable to provide X-rays or treat long-term medical problems.
Ruben Santos, a medical student at Rush University, stated that it would be unreasonable to expect someone who has experienced the journey of smoking cessation to simply stop. Instead, the approach should be to find alternative ways to connect with the individual and address their immediate needs, without relying on traditional methods typically used in a clinical or academic setting.
The volunteer staff informs every patient that the service is complimentary, but that they are students. Experienced physicians, who are involved in the initiative, review treatment plans and prescribe medications.
Providing individuals with these medications presents another obstacle. During a single visit to a station, 15 prescriptions were issued. While working on their laptops on the premises, surrounded by numerous sleeping families, the doctors strategized on which medics would retrieve the medications the next day and how they would locate the intended recipients.
At times, the volunteers may need to request emergency assistance.
Moises Hidalgo, who is 30 years old, reported difficulty with breathing. Upon examination, doctors detected a worrisome “crackling” noise and suspected pneumonia, leading them to call for an ambulance.
Hidalgo, who migrated from Peru over ten years ago, previously worked as a chef. He has been searching for employment in Chicago, but has been denied due to lacking a work permit.
He stated that he has been attempting to secure employment in order to afford a place to sleep. If this issue is not resolved, he cannot continue to wait.
He dressed in four layers of clothing and tied his loose pants with a shoelace to keep warm while sleeping outdoors.
The medical professionals are optimistic that Chicago will adopt their strategy. They also plan to persist with their efforts, as it holds personal significance for some of them.
Dr. Muftawu-Deen Iddrisu, an employee at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, expressed a desire to give back. As a native of Ghana, he received his medical education in Cuba.
“I hail from a modest upbringing,” he shared. “I understand the sentiment. I remember when someone did the same for me in the past.”
Melissa Perez Winder, a video journalist from the Associated Press, contributed to the making of this report.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides backing for the Associated Press Health and Science Department. The AP is entirely accountable for all of the material.