Growing Up in a Health Desert

November 26, 2015 /

Photo: Coachella, Unincorporated

By Olivia Rodriguez, Coachella, Unincorporated

Ed. Note: Coachella, Unincorporated is our sister youth media program out of the Eastern Coachella Valley. Olivia Rodriguez is from Thermal, Calif. She graduated from Desert Mirage High School in 2011 and earned her bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley in 2015. Olivia joined Coachella Uninc. this fall and one day she hopes to be a health leader and work alongside other community leaders in the Eastern Coachella Valley to address health inequalities in her community. 

Thermal, Calif. — Growing up in the Eastern Coachella Valley all my doctor visits were the same. Once my parents and I would arrive at the doctor’s office, I would immediately transform into a timid, frightened child. I don’t know if I was more afraid of getting a shot or of asking my doctor a question.

As a little girl, I could only communicate in Spanish. Any time the doctor, who only spoke English, would ask me a question, I would stare at my parents in panic, not knowing what to do or say. My parents, who also only spoke Spanish, couldn’t answer the physician’s questions either.

When I was finally able to understand and speak English, I felt like I had overcome one of my biggest fears. I was no longer the frightened girl stuck behind a language barrier. But I also started to think about my parents and those in my community still facing those barriers.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if we had a doctor who spoke Spanish.

It was around that time that I decided I wanted to become a physician serving residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley, which could easily be called a health desert.

A study from earlier this yearshows a gap between the country’s growing Latino population and the number of Latino doctors able to communicate and identify with this group. Of the five states with the largest Latino populations, California ranked lowest, with just 50 Latino physicians per 100,000 people. That compares to 315 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic whites.

Health access in the Eastern Coachella Valley is made worse by the fact that there is currently no hospital here. Residents have to drive 30-40 minutes to reach the nearest hospital, John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, which is in Indio, about 25 miles away. Can you imagine having a medical emergency in the middle of the night and needing to drive more than 30 minutes to get help?

Sure, there are several community clinics here, but none of them are open 24hrs and none provide the kind of care needed for a hardworking rural community like those in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

I grew up seeing my family and many others in my community work backbreaking hours in the fields. They were paid little and worked in hazardous conditions. The toll on their health was clear, and there were few medical options.

Recently I shadowed a doctor in Coachella who grew up in our community and speaks Spanish. I was surprised when I saw his patients doing something that as a child I thought was against the rules; they were talking to him, even when he hadn’t asked them anything. Sometimes I saw that his patients even had questions for him.

What I realized then was that just having access to health care isn’t enough. It certainly was not enough for me to sit silently and be examined when I was a kid. There’s more to health than just treating symptoms.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act and laws like SB4, which gives undocumented youth in California access to health care through Medical, more Latinos and residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley have gotten insured. But it’s not just about access. Yes, residents here need more and better quality care, but they also need it from doctors who are bilingual and can easily communicate with families so they don’t have to fear their doctor’s visits.

After my experience shadowing the doctor, I’ve started to see the doctor’s office in a new light. I’m not afraid of it the way I was when I was a girl. Now I see it as a place full of potential, almost as an extension of my own home and family.

The doctor’s role as a healthcare provider is to care about our well being after all. To me that sounds a lot like the kind of care my mom, dad and loved ones show to each other.


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