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Temple Physicians Spread Hope and Healing in Refugee Camp

POSTED ON February 07, 2020

Cross the Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville, TX, into Matamoros, Mexico and you enter a different world.

Sitting at the base of the bridge and conspicuous by its sheer size is a refugee camp made up of hundreds of tents containing thousands of people from countries throughout Central America. The camp is a byproduct of America’s current policy of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico until their cases are resolved. Previously, they were permitted to stay in the U.S. while they waited for their cases to be heard.

Living conditions in the overcrowded camp are extremely basic, but there is a bright spot when it comes to healthcare. In just a few months’ time, a contingent of volunteers has created an amazingly organized clinic staffed by physicians, nurses and paramedics. In December, three of those physicians came from Temple University Hospital.

“There is really no centralized organization overseeing and caring for these refugees,” said one of those physicians, Maura Sammon, MD, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Temple. “In theory, the Mexican government has that role but that’s not the reality.”

Dr. Sammon was joined by third-year Temple Emergency Medicine resident Kendra Mendez, MD. Separately, Megan Algeo, MD, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, also spent time in the camp. All three were there under the auspices of Global Response Management (GRM), a non-profit organization that is overseeing medical care for the refugees. Dr. Sammon was recently named Medical Director of GRM.

The physicians treated between 30 to 50 patients a day, all in a small blue tent set up on the street. Other medical professionals assisted, along with interpreters. The setup was rudimentary but workable, the supplies relatively meager.

About two-thirds of the patients were children with ailments that ranged from respiratory infections to malnutrition. Older patients came in for management of their blood sugar or blood pressure while others walked in with more chronic conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. All three physicians commented on how stoic and appreciative all the patients were, especially considering the austere conditions in which they were being treated.

The Temple doctors transported several patients to the U.S. during their time there, but Dr. Sammon said they made requests only in the most severe cases, fearing the privilege could be revoked. One man’s oxygen levels had dropped so low that he needed emergency care in the U.S. Another patient with a third-degree burn was sent to a burn center in North Carolina.

“It’s appropriate to use this judiciously because if it’s a ‘loophole’ that is exploited, then it will be closed for those who need it most,” Dr. Sammon said.

But the process can be time-consuming, leading to delays in care. One child had a case of appendicitis that required immediate surgery, the doctors said. His appendix ruptured before they could gain approval for him to receive surgical care in the U.S. Eventually, he was treated in Brownsville.

Although Dr. Sammon is a veteran of many overseas medical mission trips, this was Dr. Algeo’s first global medicine experience.

“They say medicine is medicine, but this was new territory for me,” Dr. Algeo said. “The biggest challenge was figuring out how to accomplish a task without the resources we’re used to having in the U.S. For example, one child wasn’t doing well with eardrops, so we used nasal packing to make an ear wick. We also made a splint out of tongue depressors and duct tape. It was very much ‘what do I need to do,’ not ‘what do I usually do.’”

For Dr. Mendez’s part, she went into the trip without expectations.

“Not knowing what to expect helped in terms of being open and flexible to contributing in any way that was needed, from counting inventory to visiting sick patients and doing ultrasounds in their tents,” she said. “I learned a lot from the other professionals who have been doing this longer than me, but I also learned a lot from the patients, which I didn’t expect…listening to their stories, what brought them there. The entire experience solidified my interest in international health.”

All three physicians said they would return to Mexico without hesitation. Dr. Sammon will be back in the camp in February.

“There are a lot of pregnant women in the camp, so we’re hoping to start offering some prenatal care,” Dr. Sammon said. “There is also the potential for some type of inpatient unit, hopefully we can be involved in helping plan that.”

“I think we've been able to do a lot of good down there, but it's definitely not a safe situation for any of the patients,” Dr. Algeo added.

Top photo caption: Temple physicians Dr. Maura Sammon (center, purple shirt) and Dr. Kendra Mendez (far right) stand with their fellow team members who volunteered at the refugee camp in Mexico. 

Bottom photo caption: The clinic was a simple blue tent set up on the street.