Guest Post: Bringing it Full Circle -A child of immigrants now offers medical care to families detained at the US-Mexico border. Elizabeth Lopez-Murray, DHEd, PA-C, MSPAS, MPH
Photo credit: Jessica Valdez Outlasting Memories.
So proud to introduce you to Elizabeth Lopez-Murray, who has worked as a Physician Assistant for the past 14 years at the Clinica La Familia in Arizona. I had the pleasure of mentoring her in 2002 when she participated in my Short-term Training Program for Minority Students. Back then, I immediately recognized her potential, her work ethic, and her strong desire to help immigrant families, so I assigned her to work in our community-based asthma research projects in Harlem, New York. Inspired by her New York internship and her personal experience as a child of immigrant parents from Mexico, Dr. Lopez now also volunteers to provide medical care to detained immigrant families. She recently published an article for the American Academy of Physician Assistants about her volunteer work with asylum-seeking immigrant families at the US-Mexico border. As a physician assistant with a doctorate degree in health education who is also bilingual in English and Spanish, she exemplifies the many options that students can consider when pursuing careers in science and medicine. Here is Elizabeth's story in her own words.
I am the proud daughter of two amazing parents who emigrated from Mexico in pursuit of the American dream and the hope for a better future for their children. Despite their long work hours, my father as a factory worker and my mother as a seamstress, they always stressed the importance of education. We learned through their hard work and motivation that good grades and college were the only option for a better future.
I was the first person in my family to attend college. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in health education at California State University, Northridge and furthered my passion for health education at New Mexico State University (NMSU), where I obtained a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. But it was the opportunity, mentorship and influence of Dr. Luz Claudio that inspired me to obtain my Doctorate in Health Education after completing a physician assistant degree. Little did I know my pursuit of a doctorate would serve as the catalyst to that which makes me most proud: the opportunity and experiences of serving individuals and families in underserved communities. These opportunities have fulfilled my moral desire and innate obligation to give back.
While obtaining my MPH at NMSU in Las Cruces, I worked for the New Mexico Department of Health. Much of that work was spent investigating the indoor toxic pollutants that exacerbate asthma, specifically in the rural communities in and around Las Cruces. This work was so impactful to my life that I continued to conduct research on childhood asthma in vulnerable populations. It was during that time I learned of Dr. Luz Claudio’s Environmental Research Program. So after completing my first year at NMSU, I applied to the program and was subsequently selected as a participant for the Summer 2002 program.
This opportunity allowed me to further research childhood asthma as a participant of the Environmental and Occupational Fellowship Program at the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai in New York. This experience forever shaped my life as a health care provider and advocate for our most vulnerable populations. I attribute the success of this experience in large measure to the leadership and mentoring of Dr. Luz Claudio and to the other remarkable program participants.
As part of the program, my research involved developing and disseminating materials to families who repeatedly experienced asthma exacerbations and included developing and evaluating culturally effective asthma education programs for communities in and around Harlem, New York. Given the prevalence rate of childhood asthma, which was strikingly high, we noted alarming hospitalization rates in this population when compared with those living in affluent communities. We attributed much of these results to a lack of health care resources and information within these communities. Given the many families using the emergency room for medical care services coupled with the limited time emergency room physicians have to treat patients, we determined that this population had significantly limited comprehensive health care, which is necessary for treating chronic conditions like asthma, and required better patient education about the condition and preventing exacerbations.
My role in mitigating the disparities between the social determinants and inequalities of health and these vulnerable populations would be the beginning of a much greater task. For instance, many of the children lived in poverty-stricken areas with poor housing conditions, which exposed them to asthma triggers that often worsened their condition. Most families were completely unaware that environmental factors, outdoor and indoor, could trigger an asthma attack. Because of the knowledge-based perspective of research Dr. Claudio and the program experience provided, the other students and I were able to identify and provide solutions to problems.
The opportunity to work with these families and contribute to the overall improvement in the health of children with asthma in Harlem, New York, was an honor. Further, this experience served as a stepping-stone for the continuation of my research in the area of childhood asthma and investigations into the health disparities among children diagnosed with asthma living in underserved rural areas of New Mexico and Arizona.
As a physician assistant for the last 14 years, I continue my commitment to working with vulnerable populations and providing medical care to those with the most need. Although I mainly work in a family practice in a predominately Latino underserved community, during the past year I have been volunteering at various churches throughout Arizona to provide medical care for immigrant families seeking asylum. Every day, over 100 detained families are dropped off at these churches by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Many immigrants have been given no instructions on where to go or how to find relatives living in the US. Others are dropped off at bus stops, leaving them homeless and helpless in an unfamiliar country without money, cell phones, or information on where to go.
As the daughter of immigrants, I am privileged and honored to be part of this group of volunteers providing humanitarian assistance to these individuals and I recently wrote about this experience in an article published by the American Academy of Physician Assistants. I am also thankful that these churches have opened their doors and provided humanitarian assistance by allowing us to establish volunteer-run free clinics for these vulnerable immigrant families. Many of our medications are donated, but too often supplies run short for treating even the most common illnesses. Common conditions we frequently treat are upper respiratory infections, fevers, otitis media, fungal infections, and wound care. Because of the scarce medical resources, I have raised funds to help purchase medications and other medical supplies. In addition to bringing awareness to the current humanitarian situation with asylum-seeking immigrants, I have used social media to recruit medical volunteers. The largest challenges in this humanitarian relief effort are the political and social determinants that have further complicated their access to medical care and continuity of care.
As a physician assistant, the combination of delivering health care to patients and conducting research to identify factors that lead to health disparities and find solutions for those disparities is the most fulfilling and gratifying aspect of my career and is a way to better serve my patients. We live in a world where there are many impoverished communities that lack access to medical care. As a practicing physician assistant, I want to continue devoting my time to assist those who are most in need, and I hope that more physician assistants will be inspired to conduct research and develop effective educational interventions for underserved communities.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.