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Border Clinic, Retirees Try to Save Migrants' Lives

July 07, 2017 (3 min read)

Eric Boodman, Stat, July 6, 2017 - "When the man walked in with fang marks on his leg, the volunteers knew the protocol: In the case of a rattlesnake bite, you call 911. But like all of the patients who end up here, his very presence in this desert clinic meant he had broken American law.

He’d been bitten sometime after he’d slipped across the southern border, while he was walking 12 miles through the arroyos and cactus-studded outcroppings in and around the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. He was hoping to reach his family in the United States; the last thing he wanted was for anyone to call the authorities.

That was the dilemma that greeted Dr. Norma Price when she picked up the phone. She is a retired physician who volunteers with a group called the Tucson Samaritans, and she doesn’t remember exactly where she took the call because she has dealt with hundreds and hundreds like it over the last 13 years. She has taken them at a salon called The Coyote Wore Sideburns. She’s abandoned her groceries at Safeway and Trader Joe’s to do consults in the parking lot, without the distraction of Muzak and other customers.

She even got one of these calls on Christmas day, while she was visiting her kids and grandkids in Atlanta. She excused herself to help volunteers deal with a woman who was having trouble breathing, after the coyote who was supposed to guide her across the desert had assaulted her instead. He had broken her ribs, and her lung had been punctured by a jagged edge of bone. She had been found, stranded and wheezing, far out in the middle of the desert, and she needed to go to the ICU.

But this man had walked into the No More Deaths (No Más Muertes) clinic himself after the snakebite, and was adamant he didn’t want anyone to call 911. The clinic volunteers asked Price what they should do. “I said, ‘Explain to him that, number one, he could lose his leg, and number two, he might die,’” Price recalled.

He still wasn’t convinced.

Price was used to difficult cases. She had spent 15 years as a medical oncologist, prescribing different chemo combinations for stubborn tumors, and then 12 years in urgent care. But now, she isn’t just battling injury and disease. She and her fellow volunteers are fighting US border policy and the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. That means fighting against the very landscape in which they work: the expanse of desert that undocumented migrants try to cross on foot to avoid being caught by the U.S. Border Patrol. It’s a place where even the smallest ailments can turn life-threatening. Blisters look like third-degree burns. Stomach bugs make dehydration even worse. A sprained ankle can mean being left behind to die.

According to the Border Patrol, 6,915 corpses were found along the southwestern border between October 1998 and September 2016 — and as Dr. Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner for Pima County, put it, “We know for sure that Border Patrol’s number is an underestimate.”

Small nonprofits like No More Deaths and the Samaritans try to keep those people alive. But for the volunteers, providing even the most basic services out here is a legal high-wire act. They’ve been arrested while driving migrants to the hospital (the felony charges were eventually dismissed). They’ve had run-ins with the Border Patrol. Fellow citizens accuse them of abetting illegal immigrants. They’ve been told that their patients should be left to die.

That climate has only grown more hostile under Trump, whose candidacy was endorsed early on by the union of Border Patrol agents, and who won the election with bitterly anti-immigrant rhetoric. These volunteers take care not to break the law — not to cross the line between permissible medical care and unlawful assistance to migrants — but it’s an unpredictable business. ... [More...] "

Dr. Norma Price, 75, (left) and nurse Sarah Roberts, 61, pause near a water drop point in the desert.