Local doc helped at Arizona border shelter
MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Linn Larson has treated scores of migrant farm workers during her two decades as a volunteer with Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic.
Concerned about the growing crisis at the United States’ southern border, Larson recently spent a 10-day “vacation” continuing her volunteer health care efforts — this time at a former monastery in Tucson, Ariz., that is providing essential services to hundreds of migrants each week who are fleeing violence and oppression in their native lands for the chance at a better life in America.
“I’ve gotten more interested in migrant health through my work with the (Open Door Clinic),” said Larson, a physician with Middlebury Family Health. “So it was a natural progression, as this crisis got worse, to see what was going on there.”
It was on March 6 — Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday of prayer and fasting — that Larson found herself thinking about ways she could help those less fortunate. She had some vacation time coming to her and wanted to put it to good use. And she explained since her children had grown and her spouse doesn’t like to travel, she had the freedom to travel solo and do what she wanted.
Sightseeing and the museum circuit weren’t on her list.
“I’m not much of a tourist,” Larson said with a smile.
So she tapped into a Facebook site listing volunteer opportunities for physicians, and found a listing for Casa Alitas, an offering of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. The former monastery has been converted to a migrant shelter, clinic and an infirmary, providing care, short-term shelter and other aid.
Casa Alitas’ visitors, according to Larson, are typically those who have crossed the border, spent several days in detention, and had been granted permission to stay with contacts (usually family) in the U.S. until their asylum hearings.
“It’s a nightmare; it can be years before they get a hearing,” Larson explained. “So many people are coming (into the U.S.) that the legal system is overwhelmed.”
She’s no stranger to humanitarian work abroad. Larson last year traveled to Cusco, Peru, where she worked with an obstetrics/gynecology clinic specializing human papillomavirus (HPV) care. She traveled to Mexico several years ago to help a nurse practitioner treat patients.
Larson reasoned a volunteer stint with Casa Alitas also would allow her to visit her brother, who lives in Phoenix.
“It seemed to make sense,” she said.
She was able to secure free housing in the Tucson area through some acquaintances and volunteered at Casa Alitas from April 28 to May 9. She typically worked a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift.
Larson was among several volunteer physicians who checked incoming families to diagnose and treat any illnesses they had. The most common ailments were colds, flu and respiratory issues, according to Larson. She also saw a fair number of people with intestinal problems that thankfully dissipated with proper nourishment.
“It was very informal; a family would sit there in a row of chairs — babies, little kids, adults — and we would check everybody’s eyes, ears, nose, throat,” Larson said. “We were mostly looking for serious illnesses. We had a lot of cough and cold medicine to give them for symptom management, Gatorade for dehydration, and some motion-sickness medicine for their upcoming bus rides.”
The more serious cases were referred to the University of Arizona Medical Center, Larson noted.
She marveled at the manner in which Casa Alitas was run.
A large worship space in a church was used for orientation meetings with the new immigrants.
Dorm rooms with a combined total of around 100 beds accommodated those who needed a place to stay before being routed to their next U.S. destination.
The facility is endowed with a commercial kitchen to prepare meals for hundreds of people each day.
It should be noted that all of Casa Alitas’ labor, supplies and equipment are donated. It receives no funding through the federal government, according to Larson.
“And the government is taking full advantage of these people’s goodwill,” Larson said.
Visitors received a bag with a blanket, toothbrush, soap, towels and other toiletries. They were then allowed to pick out two free outfits each at the Casa Alitas “bottega,” or market.
The outfits were sorely needed, as most of the visitors came in with just the clothes on their back — which were quite sweaty. The odor in the visitor intake-room got very ripe.
“They were embarrassed, but happy to be there,” Larson noted.
She was impressed with the resolve and fortitude of those who went through the shelter’s doors.
“My work (at Casa Alitas) was interesting because it was after (the patients) had been through the worst,” she explained. “They’d been through detention, they’d done the long trek, they’d had the long wait, and they’d made it. I got to witness a transition from being afraid, dirty, scared, hungry, to ‘Welcome, you are our guest.’ You would see them open up over the couple of days they were there.”
Larson joked she was able to get by day to day with her version of “Spanglish,” along with help from translators. She heard interesting stories from patients, who hailed from such countries as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador and Venezuela. Among the visitors was a “Dreamer,” a woman who had been taken into the U.S. as a child. She had returned to Mexico to visit relatives while pregnant, and was stopped by border authorities when she tried to re-enter the U.S.
Fortunately, the young woman was able to prove domicile and was allowed to stay. Her baby will be born on American soil.
“I was able to listen to the baby’s heart beat every day,” Larson said with a smile.
But other stories weren’t as uplifting. Among the constant themes: Gang violence and a lack of economic opportunity.
“The neighborhoods had gotten so violent,” Larson said. “There were people who had relatives who had been shot and killed, and (criminals) were going to come after them if they didn’t pay up, so they left. That was the most common story I heard.”
As long as these conditions persist, affected people will be looking north for safety and jobs, Larson noted.
Those making the trip are willing to take tremendous risks.
“The people I saw were coming from detention centers; they were hungry, dirty, thirsty and very smelly,” she said. “But they weren’t complaining. They were just so happy to get through that.”
There are now approximately 10 churches in the Tucson area providing migrants with the same kind of help given through Casa Alitas, according to Larson.
Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol try to give Casa Alitas officials a heads-up prior to each new wave of new immigrants, Larson said, though buses would at times show up unannounced.
Casa Alitas is, for the most part, able to keep up with the demand for its services. But there are days when the stream of visitors seems endless. For example, more than 240 people flooded the center on Easter, according to Larson.
Larson said she and many of her fellow volunteering physicians have come to the conclusion that the U.S. would be better off spending resources in addressing the conditions (poverty, violence) causing people to leave their countries of origin, rather than using those same resources to solve the resulting immigration crises when these problems fester.
“We need to re-do our foreign policy there,” Larson said.
Knowing the border crisis is likely to continue, Larson is already mapping out future volunteer “work-cations.” Next year, she’d like to help with a mobile health care service aiding migrants in Southern California.
“I feel I’m on a roll,” Larson said. “Every year, I plan to do something.”
Part of her motivation comes from the late Dr. Brad Fuller, who died in February 2018, after a major medical event. Fuller, a general surgery specialist, had joined the Porter Medical Center staff in 1987.
“When Dr. (Brad) Fuller passed away, I realized I wasn’t getting any younger,” Larson said. “I thought, ‘If I don’t start doing this, I’m never going to do it.’ So that’s what got me organized.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].