County mobilizes workers for health mission

EDUCATION: People who are familiar with immigrant communities will spread the word about safe alternatives to illegal clinics.

June 20, 1999

The Orange County Register

She was 17 and her baby had a fever and blisters.

"I was so scared I was shaking," recalls Gina Ruiz. "I tried to call the police. I dialed 4-1-1 - information - not 9-1-1."

Ruiz got to the hospital and everything was fine. And today, at 30, the self-assured mother of two laughs at herself. She also understands:

She dialed directory information. Another frightened parent might turn to the corner shopkeeper who sells medical advice and black-market medications.

On the job in Santa Ana, Ruiz meets parents who do this every day because they don't know where else to go.

Now - thanks to a crash course with a county health educator - she's ready to explain why they shouldn't, how this has led to the deaths of two small Santa Ana children, and what their alternatives are.

"People tell me all the time they go to these places, that's nothing new," says Ruiz, who works for the Health Care Agency's Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, nutritional program. "What's new is that now I know how to train them not to, and where to send them."

The training comes courtesy of Joe Vargas, also of the Health Care Agency.

Since the death of Selene Segura Rios, 18 months, in March, Vargas has been working full time developing and now teaching a curriculum to help front-line workers steer parents toward safe, affordable health options.

He is arming front-line workers like Ruiz with knowledge:

How Selene and another Santa Ana child, Christopher Martinez, 13 months, died as a result of faulty medical advice dispensed by unlicensed practitioners.

That legal residents may seek public health assistance without jeopardizing their chances for citizenship. That illegal immigrants may still buy low-cost insurance and patronize most free clinics.

How a low-income family that makes too much to be eligible for Medi-Cal might qualify for other low-cost plans.

Why it is important that they find coverage and a family doctor now so that they will have someone to call or somewhere to go should their child fall ill at night or on a weekend.

That Children's Hospital of Orange County has a 24-hour hot line parents may use to ask a registered nurse about a child's health programs.

That Orange County now has an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. referral line for parents seeking health care.

The day Ruiz met Vargas, he was presenting his curriculum to about 100 WIC workers, people who help pregnant mothers, nursing mothers and families with young children secure the resources they need for a healthy diet. WIC deals with nutrition, not health care.

But WIC workers are familiar to the people Vargas needs to reach, and the Health Care Agency's WIC program reaches 30,000 people each month.

Vargas is also presenting his material to mental health workers, welfare workers, church workers, and prometoras, community volunteers trained to talk to their neighbors about health issues.

"When you talk to your clients," Vargas told Ruiz's class, "you have to engage them. Ask them questions. Make sure they can answer, that they really understand the dangers."

Vargas also told the class to be aware of cultural issues that could confuse clients.

In Mexico and many other countries, for example, people may purchase many medications that would require a prescription in the United States directly from a licensed pharmacist. He also cautioned that people in many ethnic communities worry about endangering their immigration status if they accept help.

Or that they simply fear authority and feel more comfortable dealing with the local shopkeeper whom they know and who speaks their language.

"We'll be giving you fliers with lots of this information," Vargas explained. "But it's very important that the message comes from someone the client knows and trusts. That's you."