VSU Students, Faculty Assist Emory’s South Georgia Farmworker Health Project

Jessica Pope

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Marriage and Family Therapy Program students and faculty members from Valdosta State University spent six days working with Emory University School of Medicine’s South Georgia Farmworker Health Project in Lowndes County.

While medical teams from Emory University, as well as Mercer University, cared for the patients’ bodies, dealing with everything from diseases of the skin to high blood pressure, the therapeutic team from VSU cared for their minds.

“We provide counseling and/or therapeutic services to the patients who come to see the doctors,” explained Dr. Martha J. Laughlin, director of clinical training with VSU’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program. “Battering, alcohol abuse, sexual problems, depression, family problems are much of what we see.”

Laughlin said that nearly a dozen students from VSU’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program participated in this year’s project.

“Having the therapy is good because we see more than just the physical,” added Dr. Miryam Espinosa-Dulanto, member of VSU’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program Advisory Board. She served as an interpreter for the health project while it was in Lowndes County, from June 15 to June 20, and also coordinated the university’s participation.

For 17 years, the Emory University School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program has collaborated with such South Georgia partners as VSU to provide health care at no cost to farmworkers and their families for two weeks in June. This year, 100-plus volunteers — interpreters from Emory and VSU, physician assistant students from Emory and Mercer, physical therapy students from Emory, resident physicians and medical doctors from Emory, pre-med students from VSU completing shadowing requirements before applying to medical school, athletic training and marriage and family therapy students from VSU, and workers from the Lake Park-based Migrant Workers Clinic — cared for more than 600 individuals, ranging from infants to the elderly, in Lowndes County. The San Jose Mission and Women’s and Gender Studies Program at VSU donated food and clothing collected during the year, to be dispersed to those patients in need.

“Many of those cared for are migrant farmworkers who often work from sunup to sundown in the fields and then till midnight in the packing shed, especially during harvesting season,” said Denise Famelette of the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center. “It’s hard work, and they do it without complaint every day.”

Before arriving in Lowndes County, volunteers with the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project spent a week in Decatur County, caring for an additional 1,000 men, women, and children, including migrant farmworkers and a significant Haitian population.

“There is a huge educational component to the project,” said Espinosa-Dulanto. “The physician assistant and other students serving at the sites have the opportunity to gain real experience with rural health care, gain sensitivity with the culture and life of the migrant farmworker, learn about issues with immigration, the fear that these families live with every day, and more. It’s a big event. It’s good.”

Terry Mize, director of admissions and community projects at the Emory University School of Medicine, said that the majority of the conditions treated during the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project involve skin, eye, or musculoskeletal issues. Any patients who require follow-up care for chronic conditions are referred to the Lake Park-based Migrant Workers Clinic, which serves Lowndes County and Echols County year-round, or to an appropriate physician or surgeon.  

“These are a very tough, hard-working, and gracious people,” he said, referring to the farmworkers and their families. “It is a pleasure to help take care of them.”

“For some of the patients, this will be the only time they are seen by a health care provider all year,” added Espinosa-Dulanto.

The South Georgia Farmworker Health Project set up makeshift clinics for several hours at a time at 10 different sites in Lowndes County over the course of six days. Some were located in more public areas, such as the field behind a local hotel, and some were located on private farm camps. All of them were outside, beneath tents that offered volunteers little relief from the intense summer heat, but just like the migrant farmworker picking fruits and vegetables during agriculture’s peak summer season, none of them complained. They had a job to do, and they did it.

Lydia Naylor, nurse manager at the Migrant Workers Clinic in Lake Park, said that it was her team that selected the sites and helped get the word out to migrant farmworker families living in the area.

“We know where the people live and work,” she said. “We know the farm owners. They know that they can trust us.”

The South Georgia Farmworker Health Project was started in 1996 in collaboration with the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center in Albany and the Georgia Farmworker Health Program, State Office of Primary Care. It was initially held in Echols and Lowndes counties only, serving roughly 150 people, but two years later it was expanded to include a week in Decatur County. It is designed to provide care to a medically underserved and economically important population in Georgia and to increase awareness and competency of health care providers and students in working with this population, according to Emory officials.

Visit http://med.emory.edu/pa_program/about_us/community_service/farm_worker/index.html to learn more.

Visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/valdostastate/sets/72157634299161547/ to view photos.