On a cold December day, a little over 50 years ago, Pilar Guerrero arrived in this country from Mexico with his parents with him. He was 9 years old, he remembered, and he didn’t know any English.
Guerrero, now a family doctor, smiled as he sat next to the little girl and her mother, then continued their examination. The girl and her mother are among the recent immigrants to Chicago from South and Central America.
“I can look up to them,” Guerrero said. “These young parents have the courage to do whatever they can to give their child and them a better life.”
At the end of the summer months, when the first buses of immigrants from Texas began to arrive in Chicago, Guerrero volunteered to work in the clinic and health care system established by Stroger Hospital of Cook County to provide necessary and urgent care to immigrants as part of the city and the state’s efforts to ensure their well-being.
For Guerrero, who is preparing to retire after working as an emergency room physician at Stroger Hospital for two decades, it was personal. “It’s like a full circle,” she said. It is an opportunity to give back to fulfill a dream that seemed far away when he was brought to this country.
Besides being their doctor, when he meets the young girls, Guerrero automatically reminds them that they are now in a place where they can learn English and that “opportunities are there, because they were mine.”
For many health care workers from other countries – or children of immigrants – caring for migrants gives them the strength to continue their work and helps to plant in migrants the seeds of hope for their future in this country, despite the uncertainty they face.
“It’s a way to instill hope in them,” said Guerrero.
After working as a registered nurse for six years, Guerrero decided to earn a doctorate at the University of Michigan Medical School, followed by an emergency residency at Kings County/ SUNY Downstate Hospital in New York and completed a one-year research fellowship in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
He praises the sacrifices of parents, friends, teachers and neighbors. “I was able to achieve dreams that I had never imagined. So I see these children, I see a lot of potential in their young lives,” she said.
So when 2-year-old Yansa Torres tried to play with her stethoscope, she let him. Yansa arrived with her 11-month-old brother and their mother, Darling Vielma, from Venezuela a little over a month ago.
On the trip north, the mother did not have enough money to buy food for her children, so when they arrived in Chicago, the two children were malnourished and sick, Vielma said.
“I was worried that instead of bringing them safety, I was hurting them,” Vielma said in Spanish. Like thousands of Venezuelans, Vielma said she left her country to find a stable job in order to give her children a better education.
When he arrived in Chicago and was taken to the clinic, he was grateful. “It was a blessing. I didn’t expect it,” he said.
Her two children are now at a healthy weight and visit regularly for follow-ups.
Stroger leaders and staff established the clinic less than a day after city and state officials asked for their help providing medical care to migrants arriving in Chicago on buses sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, said Iliana Mora, who oversees the program that provides protection. and follow-up care for immigrants throughout Chicago and those temporarily housed in suburban shelters and hotels.
Since its inception, there have been more than 9,000 clinic visits, which is indicative of the number of buses that have arrived at Chicago’s Union Station since the summer. More than 3,500 people have been patients at this clinic, including nearly 1,000 children and 35 pregnant women.
In addition to providing physicals required as part of their asylum case with immigration authorities, immigrants can receive medication, care for chronic diseases, eye and hearing tests, and school physicals for children. On site, there are also mental health services and staff to help migrants sign up for health insurance.
“Life doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s usually not a priority for immigrants,” said Mora, the daughter of Colombian parents who came to the US in the ’70s.
Most migrants are only focused on finding a way to make a living that will make their journey, struggle and pain worth it, she said.
“But health is very important to their health and their ability to contribute to the economy and their families,” Mora said.
Mora, who brought together Stroger staff to form a team to establish services at the clinic, said it is important to include doctors and other health leaders who speak two languages and two cultures.
“These people have been through a lot; they deserve respect and dignity,” said Guerrero. “At the clinic, you are not just a healthcare provider, but you open your culture and your heart to them because they can see because they know that you know what it is like to be a Lantinx.”
For Israel Rocha, CEO of Cook County Health, the project is healing. He said it is gratifying to be able to provide comfort and help to those who have just arrived in the midst of turmoil in their lives.
Rene Munoz, the clinic’s site manager, said health care is a human right and overrides any political rhetoric about immigration.
Munoz has personally seen how the eyes of pregnant women and mothers light up when they enter the clinic knowing that there are doctors to help them.
For many migrants, access to health care – or at least proper access – was not available in their countries of origin.
Silvia Gaby Calderon is 33 weeks pregnant. She traveled to Peru with her husband and their one-year-old daughter. The rewards of taking that trip outweighed the risk of staying in Peru, where they lost their jobs and had no food.
“We did it for our children,” Calderon said in Spanish.
Guerrero met with him to prepare him for the job in a few weeks.
“Having (the doctor) has been a blessing,” Calderon said.
Like Guerrero, Muñoz gets emotional when he sees families with young children. It reminds him of his own children – and keeps him from thinking about his immigration story.
He said his parents left their hometown of Jalisco, Mexico, and crossed the border without permission, hugging him. He was 2 years old. They were undocumented until his father received permanent residency through the amnesty program in 1986.
He said his family did it alone. So working with immigrants now is important to him.
“Letting them know that we are here to help, that they are not doing it alone like we did 35 years ago,” he said. “And that there are people who know their struggle and who know their stories. And that looks like them, speaking their language.”