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Med Students Offer Free
Health Clinics to Migrant Workers
September 6, 1999

Three nights a week during the summer, a small group of medical students traveled around the state providing basic health care to migrant and seasonal farm workers who pick fruit, vegetables and tobacco.

Working outdoors, at picnic tables and benches, the students listened to hearts and lungs, took blood pressures, and treated the rashes, backaches, dehydration and other illnesses troubling the workers. With volunteer physicians and other health professionals, they often saw dozens of men, working until it got too dark to continue.

"It's a different kind of medicine," said Rebecca Andrews, School of Medicine Class of 2002. She and classmate Justyna Reczek organized the program this year. Many of the farm workers who came to the clinics had no record of immunizations and a sketchy medical history. Those who needed referrals for follow-up care were given vouchers for care at area health clinics. Their care was paid for through a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration's Bureau of Primary Health Care.

"We got involved in the program last year," said Bruce Gould, associate dean for primary care. "The director of the Connecticut Association for Primary Care mentioned the need for health care for the migrant and seasonal workers. Our students were already working at clinics in homeless shelters, so I thought they might be interested in this."

The medical students organized the program, setting up schedules for the clinics and recruiting volunteers to participate. "The workers could be treated at emergency rooms, but that's an expensive and inefficient way for them to get care," said Gould. "These men are already spending a fair amount of their pay on food. They don't have easy access to health care and they often are reluctant to seek it out because of the potential expense," he added.

"It's an opportunity for our students to get involved in basic primary care," said Gould. "They also learn about public health, occupational medicine and they are exposed to health care issues related to an underserved population."

The medical students also had an opportunity to do their own research. Andrews and Reczek were conducting research on green tobacco sickness. "Its a flu-like illness found in farm workers who pick tobacco," said Andrews. "It's triggered by nicotine absorbed through the skin. The condition is pretty common in the South, but we haven't seen it up here yet."

The students offered the clinics from the end of June through the first week of August.

Connecticut has about 15,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers during the summer months, according to Kevin Marrazzo, an outreach worker for the Connecticut Migrant Health Network that coordinated the program in this state. He added, "The clinics are a great benefit for the workers."

Kristina Goodnough