June 30, 2009

Student Collaborations Promote Migrant Health Care

VALDOSTA - The VSU Division of Social Work has collaborated during the past five summers with the Emory University Physician Assistant Program to offer check-ups and mental health guidance to thousands of migrants and seasonal farm workers in South Georgia. VSU College of Nursing and Department of Psychology students have joined the community-wide effort during the past two years. This summer, dozens of student volunteers set up mobile health clinics in fields June 20-25 to attend to migrants’ medical needs.

Tom Himelick, director of community projects at Emory, has been leading physician assistant students into the fields of South Georgia for the past 13 years. Himelick, who was named Humanitarian of the Year, said it is because of eager VSU and community volunteers that the Georgia Farmworkers Health Project has grown from serving 100 migrants in 1996 to administering primary care to nearly 1,500 seasonal farm workers during the two-week mobile clinic.

“The problems we see are not often isolated physical issues, but manifestations of a combination of psychological, chronic muscular issues and illness,” said Himelick. “The student volunteers from a variety of disciplines - be it physical therapy, psychology or nursing - enable us to address the whole individual. The community support from area churches and health clinics allows us to follow up with patients, a critical component to maintaining good health.”

Allison Curington, director of field instruction for VSU’s Division of Social Work, supervises Master of Social Work students’ volunteer efforts - such as clothing and food drives - for the South Georgia Migrant Farmworker Clinic in Lake Park. Social work students administer referrals for specialized medical appointments, pass out health education materials and counsel migrants about substance abuse, depression and anxiety.

“These experiences broaden our students’ experiences in the field of social work,” said Curington, who oversees about 15 student volunteers each summer. “This opportunity allows our students to experience the blending of medical services and social services as well as experience the specific needs of migrant workers. The hope is that our students will gain more understanding of the barriers migrant populations face.”

Dr. Linda Floyd, assistant professor of nursing at VSU, supervises students who participate in health screenings at the annual migrant clinic sponsored in part by the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center. She said students offer basic health screenings for blood pressure, vision and depression; they also strive to educate migrants about preventing injuries and chronic conditions, such as heart and certain dental diseases.

“Students observe and interact with the persons who pick the food we eat and who struggle with daily hardships to meet basic needs of food, shelter and safety,” Floyd said. “By providing nursing care to the migrant farm workers of South Georgia, nursing students and nurses gain cultural competency to meet the health care needs of underserved persons where they live and work.”

Stephanie Bennett, a student in the Accelerated BSN Program for Second Degree Students, conducted eye exams and blood pressure screenings for farm workers and their dependants. She said working out in the fields without all the amenities of a hospital has made her a more resourceful health professional. Bennett said she also appreciated the experience working with other health care providers.

“I haven’t gotten to work too much with other health professionals in the field, so the experience has really helped me understand and appreciate everyone’s role in the process of helping the sick,” said Bennett, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology. “It has been a powerful experience to see the need of this community, one I don’t normally see. They have been so grateful for our love and care.”

Nealy Stapleton, program manager for SOWEGA-AHEC, said that 88 percent of the 640 migrants seen during the Farmworkers Health Project last June did not speak English; 58 percent of them said they had not seen a physician within the last 12 months. More than 500 of the patients were males, ranging in age from 4 months to 74 years. Students attended to the needs of 123 females, mostly in their mid to late 20s. Stapleton said the average clinic patient reported attending six years of school.
Slightly more than 210 of the patients seen from Echols and Lowndes counties required referrals for dental and gynecological services, primary care, social work, asthma, vision, cardiology, psychological support and injuries. However, the health status for the region’s Latino population is relatively good, Stapleton said. Consistent problems include elevated blood pressure reading and high glucose levels, which may stem from dietary habits.

The annual health screenings have inspired lasting bonds among VSU, community organizations and area migrant clinics that provide medical treatment and necessities to migrants throughout South Georgia. SOWEGA-AHEC will continue to raise funds, encourage student participation and provide interpreters for the free health clinics. Churches and other groups have pledged financial support and hot meals for volunteers during the often 12-hour days. Dr. Martha Giddings, director of the Division of Social Work at VSU, began a volunteer program for students to collect blankets, clothing and food and for area migrant clinics. She also coordinates an outreach trip to Mexico.

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