I am a senior studying biochemistry at the University of Arizona. This summer, I had the experience of a lifetime as a part of the FRONTERA (Focusing Research on the Border Area) Internship. I learned a lot about border region communities and what makes them prone to health disparities.
One of the most impactful experiences for me was visiting the Tohono O’Odham reservation at the beginning of the summer. My group was hosted by the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center (SEAHEC), which organized visits to the museum there, as well as visiting the only clinic on the reservation. We learned about the rich history and culture of the people on the reservation—their woven and patterned hand baskets, tools they used to harvest fruit from saguaro cacti, and some traditional practices within the tribe. We also learned about the health disparities that afflict their population due to lack of resources and nutrition. On the reservation, which is the size of the state of Connecticut, there is only one grocery store and one clinic that does not have an operating room. We followed a doctor at the clinic, who talked to us about rural medicine and some of the issues that this community faced. For instance, many of the patients from the reservation that need surgery are sent to Tucson Medical Center instead, which is a couple hours away. I was blown away by the incredible art and beautiful culture of the Tohono O’Odham people, but shocked to learn about the medical and nutritional issues that affect a large portion of the population on the reservation, which made me think about my role in changing that.
I also had the opportunity to complete various service and health outreach activities in communities along the border. In Nogales, Arizona, my classmates and I went around neighborhoods door-to-door to ask community-members questions about their knowledge on mosquito-borne illness for SEAHEC’s “Fight the Bite” campaign. Inhabitants on the border are susceptible to diseases coming from across the border (on either side), and mosquitoes often spread these diseases. Therefore, our job was to complete surveys around the community and report our findings back to SEAHEC to potentially launch educational programs to teach people how to protect themselves.
In Nogales, Mexico, my group partnered with health professionals from Secretaria de Salud to administer vaccinations to pets in an urban community, which had reported multiple cases of fiebre manchada, a zoonotic disease. We walked along dirt roads in 110-degree weather, explaining our mission to the inhabitants of the underdeveloped neighborhood. In visiting this community, we prevented additional outbreaks of dangerous illnesses in a population that would otherwise avoid this sort of preventive care due to the increasing militarization of the border and lack of access to health services. Ultimately, my exposure to community health outreach broadened my scope on medicine, allowing me to consider larger issues affecting people, including living conditions and environmental factors. Moreover, it allowed me to observe first-hand how physicians can have a direct impact on their communities by bridging the gap between underserved populations and access to medical health care and resources.
I was also very fortunate to be matched with an incredible mentor: an ObGyn at the Banner University Medical Center. In following this physician in her clinical consults, I encountered women from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. For instance, one patient came in for a checkup concerned that her fetus would develop a neurological disorder after a choroid plexus cyst was found during her first ultrasound, but could not get another ultrasound given the cost. Another patient was a Somali refugee, who wanted information about IUDs after having her twelfth child, communicating with us via a medical translator on speakerphone. I also had the opportunity to scrub in on a few of this physician’s C-section procedures. The unwavering strength that these women demonstrate, despite the obstacles that they faced, continues to humble me and motivate me in my endeavors to pursue medicine. Under this physician’s guidance, I conducted a study on physician and patient adherence to the recommended postpartum diabetes screening for women with gestational diabetes. I did an oral presentation of my findings at the end of the FRONTERA internship ceremony and presented a poster at the UROC symposium.
The experiences that I accumulated through the FRONTERA internship will stay with me as I apply to medical school and beyond. It was a privilege to visit the beautifully diverse communities of the border and learn about the challenges that they are faced with, as well as how I can help. Moreover, the connections that I made with my mentors, classmates, and faculty have taught me more than I could have ever expected.