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Doctor Cares for Latino Immigrants - 2004-01-09


The name carved in black over the entrance to the three-story yellow brick building in a residential section in the heart of Washington, D.C. reads “La Clinica del Pueblo” - the People’s Clinic. The founder and director of this clinic, Doctor Juan Romagoza, came to the United States from El Salvador twenty years ago, fleeing torture and persecution in his native country. His story and his clinic in today’s edition of New American Voices.

La Clinica del Pueblo treats about six thousand patients each year, the vast majority of them immigrants from Latin America who have low-paying jobs and no health insurance.

“Their needs stem from chronic problems --diabetes, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, cancer, AIDs are the most common medical problems. Also teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases in teens. And emotional problems, the effects of the trauma of civil war are frequent in this community. Domestic violence and alcoholism … many people come through these doors with that problem.”

Although Doctor Romagoza speaks English, he prefers to talk about his work and his personal experiences in Spanish. A compact, energetic man in his fifties, he directs a staff of forty-six, plus one hundred volunteers, in providing basic health services, health education, and counseling to the more than 500 people who visit his clinic each week.

“We provide a series of medical services integrated into a concept of holistic health, in which we incorporate not just the physical aspects of medicine with specialists but also the emotional and mental health dimensions and the social aspects. We have very interesting, innovative clinics that deal with AIDs, prenatal care, diabetes, a very popular clinic involving alternative therapies. We offer help in translation also, both in our clinic and for our clients in other hospitals and clinics where they need interpreters.”

La Clinica del Pueblo’s services are free. Dr. Romagoza says the 4 million dollar annual operating budget is covered by the city, the federal government, and donations from foundations and private individuals. To help with costs, the Clinic tries to match up needy patients with services that the city already provides to low-income individuals –- such as food stamps or HIV testing -- but which the Latino immigrants might not know about. La Clinica’s health workers also go out into the community.

”In view of the fact that we don’t have much space, we try to go where people live, to their neighborhoods and churches, to talk to them, and make sure that they know where to find us when they are sick. And we have educational programs in the evenings in strategic locations, where Latinos gather, trying to warn them and teach them about the symptoms of AIDS. Also we have what we call nutrition Saturdays and health Sundays, teaching people about better nutrition and preventive health care. We go to the churches to try to educate people to do routine examinations. And we strive for early detection of the problems most frequently present in our clients, and if it’s too late we refer them to the right place for follow-up treatment.”

Juan Romagoza opened La Clinica del Pueblo in 1983, not long after coming to the United States seeking asylum. Like so many other Salvadoreans, he had fled the violence of the country’s civil war. As a young doctor practicing medicine among the poor of San Salvador, he had been suspected of being a guerilla leader, and was arrested and tortured.

“They detained me, they tried to break my spirit. They mutilated my fingers so I could not continue to do surgery, but in fact I continue to do what I was doing –- a different model, a different context, but still providing urgent health care to the poorest in the community. It did affect my professional life, in that it gave me an added impetus to do what I was doing.”

Although in America Dr. Romagoza was able to continue his life’s work, the beginnings were not easy.

“It was very difficult to reestablish myself as a doctor. It was difficult due to language, to licensing, due to being an immigrant. It was not easy to get qualified as a doctor here, with so many complex challenges. But I believe the fact that I remain basically in the same community that I came from, where I know how to live and serve, that helped me overcome all those barriers.”

Dr. Romagoza became an American citizen in 1989, as soon as he was eligible. He says that for him, having experienced what he did in his native El Salvador, it was important to become a part of this country.

“This country is definitely a country of liberty. It was founded for those who came fleeing oppression, and in pursuit of human rights. There are laws to defend these human rights. This country is a refuge for people fleeing from places where they are persecuted for their color or race, their ideology or religion. They find support and shelter here. For me, the primary worth of this country is in the principles on which it was founded.”

Last April, thanks to a large grant from the Washington, D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, La Clinica was able to open a new, larger facility. The next step, says Dr. Romagoza, will be opening another branch of his clinic, either in the city or in the neighboring Virginia or Maryland suburbs. The need for the services that La Clinica del Pueblo provides, he says, is growing apace with the continued influx of immigrants from Latin America into the Washington area.

English Feature Broadcast January 12, 2004

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