by Michael Felber, Nurse and volunteer with GRM
WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS SENSITIVE CONTENT THAT SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING
Over the past year, I have done several volunteer rotations with GRM in Reynosa, Northern Mexico. Hopefully, this blog will give you an idea of what to expect and to share a few of my memorable moments.
Days begin with a short drive from McAllen, Texas to the border, past an obtrusive stretch of border wall – tucked beyond typical US-style stores and warehouses – forcing an artificial divide in the landscape as helicopters patrol the border, criss-crossing above us.
We cross the Rio Grande, sharing the international bridge with that morning’s deportees as they silently trudge in a single file back to Mexico in unfastened shoes – laces are confiscated by US immigrations officers – clutching plastic bags containing their few belongings and documents. Their clothes are still muddy from their recent attempt to enter the US.
Reynosa feels different; it requires situational awareness as organized crime groups monitor the border. I don’t feel afraid or unsafe, but vulnerable. Using a buddy system, always being aware of exits, and being mindful of people around me quickly becomes second nature.
GRM rotates around different clinics in Reynosa, all of them hot, crowded, and noisy. The local team in Mexico are made up of an impressive bunch of doctors, nurses, logisticians and translators, some of whom are themselves asylum seekers, volunteering in the clinic to put their skills to use whilst waiting for permission to enter the US. They are skilled and dedicated with limitless positivity, despite the desperate conditions facing their patients.
A local provider once said something that is never far from my mind: “the story of migrants is long, but their truth is short”. That truth, as I see it, is their constant struggle for basic necessities such as safety, shelter, food, and dignity. But in the long lines of patients at the Reynosa clinic, each patient with a different medical problem, they all have their own stories.
As a bilingual nurse a lot of my day is spent assessing patients, triaging, and interpreting for doctors. Just like any Emergency room at home, patients present with problems ranging in complication and urgency. Often, the presenting complaint is just the tip of the iceberg.
One day, a young Guatemalan woman was carried into the clinic, unable to catch her breath. I helped her onto an exam table doing my best to calm her down until she was able to talk. She had been having episodes of hyperventilating, feeling pressure and pain in her chest, and losing sensation in her arms and legs. Apart from some dehydration her medical exam was normal, although she looked terrified.
As we talked, she told me that she had been kidnapped shortly after arriving in Reynosa and held until her family could pay the ransom to free her. While she was held captive she had been repeatedly raped and threatened with death. Once freed, she began suffering from headaches and insomnia with difficulty eating, drinking, and concentrating.
She worried that she was losing her mind and that these debilitating symptoms would prevent her from parenting her young son. As we talked, I explained that feeling vulnerable, apprehensive and hypervigilant were common responses to trauma, and how the confines of her tent during the night might be especially difficult.
I reassured her that it wasn’t her fault and that the wounds she felt in her mind and spirit were as real as wounds to her physical body, and that like physical wounds they could also get better. She identified a friend who slept near her, and we agreed she could be part of her support system, staying close when she was anxious.
I referred her to Doctors Without Borders, the mental health workers who could treat her acute stress and panic attacks. A few days later, I saw her waiting calmly for her appointment, with her son on her lap. My job as a nurse is to assess and treat patients, to help them connect to other health resources, and to advocate for their well being. However, with limited resources, I hoped that I had helped her as best I could.
Volunteer medical work isn’t especially glamorous or exciting. Sometimes I reflect on that after sweating through the day. But working with that young woman reminded me of what a privilege it is to be part of another person’s story, even briefly.
KEYWORDS: Michael Felber, Nurse, Volunteer, Mexico, Reynosa, migration
TOPICS: Volunteer stories, Mexico, Migration