Lessons learned at St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic

Vicki Fitzsimmons

[Episcopal News Service] On the first Thursday of each month (except July), St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona, is transformed into St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic. Here, children living in Mexico (not the U.S.) come for free, specialized medical care; for some it is their last hope. God is at work through volunteers providing health care for children with serious medical conditions, such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision loss, Down syndrome, etc. The parents cannot afford the needed medical care, or Mexican doctors have given up on the patients.

St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic was founded in 1973 by a group of mothers in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. They had children with cerebral palsy and wanted to know how to help them. One of them knew a therapist in Tucson. When she came to show them how to work with their children, she noted that some could be helped with orthopedic surgery. She invited Dr. Frankel, an orthopedic surgeon in Tucson, to accompany her on her next visit. From this beginning, word spread that these children were being helped in neighbors’ homes. The number of patients became larger, and the informal clinic was moved to a nearby orphanage. When Mexican doctors became concerned about American doctors practicing medicine in Mexico, Dr. Frankel looked for a site across “the line” in Nogales, Arizona. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and its parishioners welcomed the small clinic.

Dr. Frankel brought in a specialist to fit braces and prostheses. An audiologist was recruited when it was noted that many children did not hear well. Word of mouth increased both the number of patients and number and variety of health professionals who volunteered. In 1977 the clinic began a partnership with Shriners hospitals in Spokane and Sacramento to provide needed surgeries. Doctors and nurses from these hospitals come to each clinic to assess children for surgery at their hospitals and to do follow-up on their patients. The clinic arranges and finances transportation for each patient and one parent.

In 1990, St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic, Inc. received its 501(c)(3) status. The board of directors appointed the Rev. Ed Gustafson, an Episcopal priest, as its first executive director. The clinic has continued to grow and has stabilized to approximately 200-250 patients per clinic day. The health departments staffed by volunteers are audiology, cardiology, dermatology, nutrition, occupational therapy, orthotics, orthopedics, Reiki therapy, pediatrics, physical therapy, psychology, speech therapy, and  vision. Specialists fit children with special shoes, wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers. All is provided free to the patients.

I was invited to visit the clinic by friends I knew from attending St. Francis-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Green Valley, approximately 30 miles north of Nogales. I went, had a tour, felt that I could do something, and returned the next month to volunteer in the kitchen. At the time, I was spending the summer doing research and writing in our vacation home in Green Valley. While at the clinic, I felt this wonderful presence in the church, so I went to church services on Sunday and was welcomed by the parishioners. When my husband Jim returned to take me back to Illinois, I told him that I had changed churches and hoped he didn’t mind.

I returned to the University of Illinois for the academic year where I taught personal finance. My mind kept returning to the clinic. I was also preparing for retirement and wondering what I would do in retirement. I prayed for direction, and the answer was that I hadn’t seen a newsletter for the clinic. Since I wrote a personal finance newsletter for high school teachers, I thought this would be a good fit. When we retired and met with Fr. Ed about what we could do for the clinic, I told him what answer had been given to my prayer. He said, “And I’ve been praying for a newsletter editor.” Incidentally, Jim became involved too, first driving the van to transport patients and families between the border and the church on clinic day, then helping to transform the church to a clinic and back, and now treasurer and clinic board member.

Now I write the quarterly newsletter, take photos for the website as well as for the newsletter, and handle any needed publicity for the clinic. In this role, I go to all the departments throughout the church and preschool building, even the rector’s office, on clinic day and interview doctors, patients, and parents. Sometimes I have an interpreter working with me; sometimes not. I speak a little Spanish, which helps.

What I do is a labor of love -I am a volunteer. I have learned that it’s not about me and what I do; it’s about the children who come to our clinic. Their smiles as they receive needed care or a new wheel chair makes all my time and energy worthwhile.

Angela, born with only partial legs, shows her new prosthetic feet. Photo/Vicki Fitzsimmons

I get to see the wonderful work that our volunteer doctors and health care practitioners do at every clinic. Veronica was born with a severely deformed foot, one she would never be able to walk on. She went to Shriners Hospital for amputation of her foot. To do a story for the clinic newsletter, Jim and I went to Tucson to see the preliminary fitting of her new prosthesis. What joy on that child’s face! Three years later, her mother showed me a prized possession – a gold medal Veronica won in a race using her prosthetic leg. Her mother was so proud of her daughter.

Angela was born with no feet and partial legs. She, too, had surgery to amputate her legs. When she was seven, we took her to a presentation of funds to charities. Angela walked and danced her way to the front of the room on her “stubbies” (precursors to prostheses) so she could receive the check for the clinic. She smiled from ear to ear. There was not a dry eye in the room. What courage and stamina in such a small child!

There are lots of stories I could share with you, but there is no space here. Please go to our website to learn more about this heart-warming clinic.

I also raise funds for clinic patients who cannot speak but can use an alternative communication device such as the SpringBoard, which can be programmed to “talk” with family, friends, and teachers when the child touches parts of the screen. I feel a special bond with these children because I could not talk until I was four years old. Fortunately, I had an easy “fix”; I was tongue-tied. The doctor clipped the membrane holding down my tongue, and I started talking paragraphs. My family says I have never stopped talking since!

To raise these funds, once a year I perform a voice recital. Singing is my hobby, and I have taken voice lessons for several years. I enjoy putting together the program, which includes showing an eight-minute video about the clinic, available on our website. Donated funds are targeted to pay for a communications device for a selected child. In March, José Luís got his device and when he saw it, his eyes lit up. He went right to it and started putting phrases together. He had been watching the other children work with their SpringBoards each month while he waited for his device so he knew exactly what to do. What joy I felt watching him communicate more fully for the first time!

In the 11 years that I have been involved with this wonderful clinic, I have learned many things: (a) knowledge of a variety of medical problems that were new to me, (b) a greater understanding of Mexican culture and peoples, (c) the joy of being able to communicate with patients and parents in my limited Spanish, and (d) patience. I have watched patients and their parents wait for several hours to see different doctors and therapists. Many of them have traveled 3 to 15 hours or more to arrive at our clinic and waited in line to be processed through Immigration at the border. And, at the end of clinic day, they will travel many miles again before arriving home. And they never complain. When I have to wait in line at the bank, post office, or grocery, I think about all the patience I have seen demonstrated at the clinic, and I wait, patiently.

— Vicki R. Fitzsimmons, Ph.D., is a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Nogales, Arizona.

Comments

  1. Mary Elizabeth Landrum says:

    While a visitor at St Andrews, i saw some of the work done , and the smiling faces. Also saw the smiling faces creating more smiling faces! Truly a blessing.

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