Connecting Farmworkers with Healthcare

Our food supply depends on farmworkers. The physically demanding job of planting, harvesting, and processing food puts farmworkers at risk for acute injury and chronic disease, yet they often have limited access to healthcare.

“The biggest thing that we see is musculoskeletal issues and injuries—physical body pain. They’re usually bent over most of the day in the fields picking or cutting or pruning or uprooting or whatever the task for the day may be,” says Marianne Martinez, the executive director and outreach coordinator for Vecinos, a nonprofit healthcare organization in Western North Carolina.

Vecinos is part of network of community health programs in our region serving farmworkers. Martinez and her team aim to improve the lives of farmworkers and their families by offering mobile medical services and health education.

According to the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, farmworkers suffer from higher blood pressure compared with the general public, which can put them at risk for heart disease and diabetes. Farmworkers face six times the risk of contracting tuberculosis, and even a cracked tooth can cause long-term complications when healthcare is unavailable.

“If they say, ‘I’ve been having this really bad toothache,’ we find a dentist that fits for them. We have some partnerships that we work through to make an appointment and go pick them up wherever they might be and bring them in and interpret for them while they’re in the dental clinic and then bring them either back home or straight to the field so they can go straight to work,” Martinez says.

Vecinos partners with doctors and dentists who provide low cost or “at cost” care. That helps address financial barriers, but Martinez says other services are needed to make health care accessible, like transportation and language interpretation.

“That language barrier is huge regardless of whether they live here and have transportation or not. The other thing is simply missing a day of work to go to the doctor. Even if they get back at noon and could potentially work the rest of the day, unless we bring them straight to the field they’ve just lost an entire day of wages,” she says.

Vecinos serves around 800 people each year with their mobile healthcare clinic that runs May through November. In addition to transportation and language assistance, they also provide evening clinics, chronic disease education and management, and a food pantry. Martinez says these efforts make a difference for the farmworker community as a whole, and also on an individual level.

“One of our patients, he can’t get his weight down, he’s tried everything. He suffers from diabetes and from hypertension. He has all these body aches and pains and he just couldn’t figure out what was going on with him. So he came into our clinic and our doctors saw him once or twice and asked him all of these questions and finally set him for a sleep analysis. It turns out he has sleep apnea which is causing all of these other cascading issues. He was diagnosed, but I don’t know if you’re aware, the sleep apnea machine, it’s thousands of dollars,” she says.

“The Vecinos staff was actually able to work with some of our community partners to get the machine almost for free. Now he’s doing great. He’s using the sleep apnea machine, his weight is coming down, all of these other issues are starting to heal because we were able to get him that sleep apnea machine,” she says.

“If it weren’t for Vecinos, he would never have been able to figure that out and would have never have been able to afford that machine because they’re very expensive,” Martinez says. “So through our connections and some budget finagling we were able to help him out in a very meaningful way.”

Learn more about Vecinos and health care support for farmworkers in Western North Carolina at their website.

Aired: August 13, 2018

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