When Dr. Roberto walked into the Centro de Salud, you noticed. Everyone did. Even among a brigade of lab-coated doctors and volunteers, he stood out as the man who quietly took charge of the situation. It didn’t matter what the day brought—corrupt federales barking up the wrong group of volunteers for a bribe, a lesson on how to deliver a baby without a hospital, or enjoying homemade tortillas and posole while conducting health interviews in private homes. Dr. Roberto steered the ship.
It helped that Dr. Roberto’s six-foot, broad-shouldered stature towered over almost everyone. It also helped that he had a friendly face and an infectious smile—and that he knew how to use them. They helped soften his no-nonsense commands to set up the patient intake table here, la farmácia over there, and a quiet area for psychological services out back.
Even with exams in full swing and the line, dozens of patients long, moving right along, it was hard to lose sight of Dr. Roberto. If you did, it was because we was taking a rare break.
On these occasions, you might find him squatting to pet a stray dog, making kissing noises at the pooch and paying no mind the mud squishing onto his tennis shoes like chocolate frosting on a cake.
Or, you might find Dr. Roberto sitting on a tree stump, smoking a cigarette, baseball cap turned backwards and a plaid shirt and jeans peaking out of his open lab coat. He’d be contemplating the sweeping mountain views before him. Or perhaps simply enjoying a few moments of well-deserved rest.
Typically, a Tia brigade would leave Guadalajara before dawn and travel by van for several hours on the first day of a trip. They’d rush to their first community, set up for consultations, and help as many people as possible in the few short hours allotted.
Then, Dr. Roberto would give the order to pack up and head to town where the group would teach skills like splinting broken limbs with things you’d find around the house and how to recognize and treat dehydration. All who want to learn are welcome.
On these trips, some of the brigade returned again and again, while others had no idea what to expect.
Dr. Roberto’s first brigade was years ago, and he was hooked ever since. Most communities Tia visits see a doctor once a year or less. All the communities have a Centro de Salud, but these small, spartan clinic rely on unpaid medical students who travel around to serve many communities. It’s community service, required as part of medical education.
Roberto loved it. “Most students hate it,” he’ll say, if you ask him. “But I’d rather be out here in the dust and mugre, where people need us, not in an office.”
Nine years after his first brigade, Dr. Roberto is Tia’s Medical Director and boots-on-the-ground coordinator in Guadalajara. And we couldn’t do any of it without him.
The author of this and other stories to be featured here is Kathryn Casna. After traveling into the field on a Tia project, Kat generously donated these lovely stories to make our work come alive to our friends and donors. Thoughtful and brilliant, Ms. Casna is a freelance writer who can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathryn-casna-freelance-writer/