By: Mariana Martinez
The Flying Samaritans began in 1961 when pilot Aileen Mellott and her passengers, had to make an emergency landing in El Rosario -a small rural town in Baja California, Mexico. The people of El Rosario generously offered their hospitality to Aileen and her crew, allowing the Americans to stay in their homes and providing them with food until they could return to the US.
Aileen and her companions wanted to do something to repay the people of El Rosario for their warm hospitality so they asked one of the women who had housed them what they could do in return. At first she refused to say, but then asked for food and toys for the holidays.
When the Americans went back to El Rosario, they brought food, clothing, toys and many volunteers. Among them was a doctor. He was shocked to find out there were no hospitals or clinics in the area, and the nearest doctor was days away.
He, along with Aileen Mellott and some other doctors decided to organize constant medical missions to this little town.
As the years went by, this collection of doctors and volunteers grew into an international organization called The Flying Samaritans, which now sponsors four clinics in Baja California, completely operated by volunteers, medical professionals, translators, people from the communities… all working together in an effort to bring healthcare to distant or underprivileged areas.
Smiles of hope jump in my head as I walk through a noisy cafeteria at UCSD, where I try to find Elizabeth Stephens.
We’ve never met but find each other with the same lost look. We laugh and sit in a cornered table. She seems to me to be a fragile blond, until she starts to talk about her volunteer work with Flying Sams, and then she grows strong.
She has been a volunteer since the beginning in 1999, when a group of UCSD pre-med students involved in Flying Samaritans decided to run their own volunteer clinic in Ensenada and of which she is currently one of the board members.
The choice was made in part by suggestion from Emma Lencioni, wife of a Mexican pilot in Ensenada. She often drove people in needed of medical attention and no money, to the Flying Samaritans Clinic in Tecate more than two hours away.
Lencioni suggested that the demand in Ensenada was enough to think about a permanent clinic, especially in the outer parts of the city, in the Chapultepec common land area. Students started to work on a plan immediately. They faced a lot of obstacles; lack of money, permits, legal paperwork in order to work as doctors in México; no building, and the list went on. But, after more than two years in preparation, using the previous experience of Flying Samaritans, the UCSD Flying Sams team was ready to go to work.
The Mexican Family Health Department (DIF) let them use an old run down building that was once meant to be a clinic. They asked every doctor they knew to donate medical samples or soon to be expired medication that could be used in the clinics; they even put baskets at doctor’s offices to collect the samples and remind them not to throw them away.
I had to ask. What kept Elizabeth working for two years without any apparent-results?
“After you go down there, and you find out even soap is a luxury, then you can never go on without doing what you can, it’s just not right, you can’t just turn your head. When you get involved you build momentum in the sense that you can’t stop, and every little triumph, like a tiled bathroom, smiling child or better equipment to help, just leaves you wanting more.”
The clinic finally started helping patients in January of 2001.
Twice a month, on Saturdays, doctors and students from UCSD, along with translators meet at campus at seven in the morning; lunches packed, they chip in to pay the gas and toll fees. After an hour and a half of driving they arrive in Ensenada where they see over a hundred patients from nine to five, struggling to care for everyone who comes.
Translators work with doctors or do medical histories, the waiting room is packed with entire families waiting for their turn.
The Flying Sams consist of twelve board members and over a hundred and fifty staff members that work in coordination with an amazing woman called Marielena.
Marielena is a woman from the community, mother of four kids (all grown), she is a key element to the success of the Clinic. During the week she uses the clinic as a community center, where she teaches folk dancing and art classes to the children in the neighborhood; parenting classes to struggling families or first time mothers; and even sawing and hairdressing so girls can go out and get better jobs. She has also managed to convince a local dentist to treat people for a small fee.
Marielena is the one who tells the community what kind of services will be offered at the clinic next.
“Some times we get an oncologist and an OBGYN to go to Ensenada, it’s a strange mix,” tells Elizabeth. “So Marielena tells them what kind of doctors are coming, and what type of problems they treat”.
Besides giving them proper care and medication, UCSD students value preventive care, so every clinic includes a seminar on important subjects such as breast cancer prevention, diabetes, high blood pressure or nutrition. This is important because it is better to prevent a disease than treat it, and have to medicate for life, such as with diabetes patients.
The Flying Samaritans and the UCSD branch of the Flying Sams work side by side, sharing resources all the time, so once or twice a year, doctors from as far away as the Bay Area fly to the Ensenada Clinic to offer their help.
During the clinics, some students realized that families had to wait the entire day to see a doctor. A tiresome task, especially for young ones, so when they can, students play with the kids, paint, do Christmas crafts or run with a ball. This has been an effective way to interact with families and get to know them better, kids are very open and tell about what goes on in the household so, what started out as a way for them not to be bored is now a tool to give them better service.
Last year Flying Sams organized their first Charity Banquet. The Banquet was a way to thank the sponsors, staff and volunteers for their help, and raise money to keep working.
They managed to raise over three thousand dollars, and now have a new examining room and a fully functional, tiled, bathroom. The rest of the money was used to buy prescribed medication that is difficult to find, especially for muscle diseases, stroke victims or epilepsy patients; pay for expensive procedures or blood tests.
They have come to an agreement with a private local hospital called San José, so they let them treat a certain number of patients each month in their facilities.
They also help children with malformations or people with cataracts get the surgery they need in several San Diego Hospitals, but that has become more and more difficult with recently tighter national security issues.
Still, the Flying Sams keep on working for others, and are now organizing their second Banquet, with special guest speaker Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, who has worked with the Brazilian government as consultant. He is also the founder of CDC Lassa Fever Research Project in Sierra Leone, Africa, and has done incredible work in Ebola and AIDS research all over the world.
There will be live musical entertainment by the David Patrone Quintet, a band specialized in popular Jazz standards of the 30´s, 40´s, 50´s and 60´s.
The banquet is going to be held May 4 in the Hayatt Hotel in La Jolla (For more information visit http://www-acs.ucsd.edu/~flyings.).
So what’s next for the Flying Sams? They are currently trying to get medication donations directly form pharmaceutical companies and donated equipment to help them with the jobs. They are always in need of more volunteers and Spanish speaking translators and of course, money and as we are going to keep improving the clinic by stocking it with supplies.
As president of the Board, Joy Hardison puts it “We are going to keep improving the clinic by stocking it with supplies and getting a wider variety of diagnostic tests. Maybe we will develop the capacity for blood testing.
“Also, we need to set up a patient filing system - every patient should have their own file that stays with them. We are going to try and put all of our information - inventory lists and patient histories even - in electronic format as well.
“We want to buy this machine that does blood analysis of almost anything you could want to know, and it is portable. I think it is a few thousand dollars. We’ll see how much money we make, in the Banquet. We also have our everyday expenses - buying special meds that we couldn’t get donated, operating costs, reimbursements, etc…”
Hopefully the proceeds from the banquet will help them achieve their goals.