I’m the senior medical director for health equity and quality services at Highmark, and I’m committed to reducing disparities and promoting health equity for all. My blog will focus on ways in which we, here at Highmark, are attempting to reach these goals, and stories about how we are succeeding.


From August 8 – 15, 2015, I traveled with two members of Triumph Baptist Church in Pittsburgh on a faith-based mission deep into the Sierra Mountains in two bordering states of northern Mexico — eastern Sonora and western Chihuahua.

This was the second mission trip to serve the native “people of the mountains” for the two other volunteers from my church, but it was my first. We went to support the ongoing missionary efforts of the Encuentro Con Dios (Encounter With God) Church, in Juarez, under the leadership of Pastor Tomas Bencomo.

Pastor Tomas, as he is called, supports six mission sites serving Pima Indians and four mission sites serving Tarahumara Indians, including one boarding school. The Pima Indian villages are Babicora, Cienega Blanca, Yocaiva, San Antonio, San Ignatio and Tosanachi.

During my mission trip, we spent time in Babicora (approximately 230 inhabitants) and Tosanachi (approximately 150 inhabitants). Our first and last nights were spent in Juarez at the Instituto Biblico Fred H. Smith, where missionaries often stay before and after the long trek to the mountain interior.

Traveling the Rugged Terrain

The trip deep into and out of the Sierra Mountains is one that I will never forget. When the newly paved highway abruptly ended at the top of a mountain in Temosachic, Chihuahua, I thought, “Oh my — what now?” Little did I know what was ahead of me — miles and miles of unpaved roads with huge rocks, deep mud tracks and huge pools of water sometimes a foot deep or more.

And oh, did I forget to mention there were numerous unnamed rivers that we actually crossed in our Chevy Suburban, since the rivers far outnumber the bridges in the mountains?  Yet — despite the hardship of the travel — the views in the mountains were spectacular.

The Doctoras Are in Town

The Pima Indians of Tosanachi and Babiocora welcomed us like family. The word was out that the “Doctoras” were in town, and in both villages we began seeing patients shortly after our arrival. Our medical team consisted of a Canadian family physician, a Mexican missionary who served as our interpreter, and me.

I treated a wide range of conditions, including cellulitis, asthma, gastroenteritis (the top diagnosis), acne, failure to thrive in infants, and sunburn. I also provided simple wound care. And some mothers just wanted to have their children checked, as reassurance that they were healthy.

All children and adults received vitamins from us. Most adults had severe tooth loss, and by late childhood, most of the children and adolescents that I examined already had advanced tooth decay. Diabetes and asthma were common in adults. Type 2 diabetes is hereditary for the Pimas and is not associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle for them the way it is for us in the United States and other developed countries.

The president of Tasanachi Village and his wife wearing their new donated glasses.

The president of Tasanachi Village and his wife wearing their new donated glasses.

The most memorable moments were watching people when they had their sight improved by a donation of reading glasses from Highmark Health’s Visionworks company. It was incredible to watch the people smile in that magical moment when they realized how much improved their vision was. In Tosanachi alone, we gave out 50 pairs of eyeglasses on our first day!

The People of the Mountains

On our trip, we stayed with local families. Agriculture was the way of life — their crops were corn, beans and other vegetables. In Tosanachi, our local host families raised cows and had many chickens.

Outhouses in Tosanachi

Outhouses in Tosanachi

Many homes were just starting to have electricity — solar cells generated electricity that were in some way powered by a car battery. Sanitation was generally an outhouse, although some homes had toilets. Water was heated with wood. Laundry was done by hand — the poorer families did the laundry in the river.

There was no refrigeration, air conditioning, fans, television, radio, telephone or mail service. My most prized items I had brought with me were my flashlights, wipes, biodegradable toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Faith, Affection and Appreciation

Many of my patients requested prayer. Prayer went hand-in-hand with the medical care that I provided. Every day we began and ended with “Devotions” and the locals came “for the service.”

They picked corn from their cornfields and brought hot, delicious dishes over to us and opened their homes to allow us to live among them even though we were total strangers. I was treated well, and every patient and family member hugged me and kissed me after I finished my examination.

Yes, I cried when I left the mountain villages (truthfully — my threshold for crying was very low the entire time while I was on the mission trip). I returned to the U.S. with an enormous sense of gratitude for all things previously taken for granted — medical care, refrigerators, toilets, hot water, showers, clean water, paved roads and especially bridges — and I will never complain about a pothole again!

I miss the people, even though I could not speak the language — but the language of love needs no translation or interpreter. I miss the clean air, gazing at the stars in the sky at night (no telescopes needed to star gaze!), and waking up to the sounds of cows and roosters.

Would I go on a mission trip again to serve the people of the Sierra Mountains? Absolutely! The need is enormous, and the hardships are many, but the love and gratitude shown to us was overwhelming.

 

Special thanks to Highmark’s Visionworks for donated eye glasses; to United Concordia for donations of toothbrushes, crayons and coloring books; and to Robert Pezzin, director, supply chain operations, who coordinated donations of infant formula through the Henry Schein Cares Foundation.