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Flying Physicians

Volunteer Doctors Take Real Risks to Treat the Poor in Mexico


CADEJE, Mexico — Though it was early on a warm Saturday morning, dozens of villagers had already gathered outside the ramshackle building to wait for the California doctors.

They heard the news on the radio and from friends, and traveled from farms and fishing villages as far as 100 miles away. Some families drove old pickup trucks. Others walked for hours along dirt roads. One man rode his horse for two days to reach the cinder-block building known as "la clinica."

"Before the American doctors came, the people suffered so much," said Bella Higuera, 54, who has lived in Cadeje nearly 30 years. "Help is very expensive. They bring us medicines and they help the whole community."

The Aeromedicos, a group of Ventura and Santa Barbara doctors, nurses and interpreters, fly in private planes to Baja California several times a year to offer free medical care to poor residents. They are among several nonprofit groups from throughout California that volunteer in the pueblos of Mexico.

The trips are frustrating and risky. Often, immigration officials detain the doctors for hours, and gun-toting military officers inspect their private planes. Pilots fly over rugged hills and land on muddy runways, sometimes crowded with chickens and dogs.

Last month a Cessna 320 crashed near Ensenada, killing six members of a similar group from Northern California.

"This isn't big-city flying," said Luis Beltran, a 50-year-old pilot who flew his Cessna 210 from Oxnard to Cadeje in October. "This is Baja bush flying."

Beltran started making the treks to Mexico with Aeromedicos about 12 years ago. At home, he works as an Oxnard firefighter. At the clinic, he works as an interpreter and a dental hygienist. He also uses his carpentry skills to keep the building up and running.

"There was no way to help more than here," said Beltran, who has a jovial laugh and keeps his colleagues in good spirits amid the obstacles.

The Aeromedicos' budget is limited, making it difficult to round up enough supplies and medicines and to recruit enough doctors and dentists. And in the villages, the doctors work in makeshift clinics, treating patients who don't speak English and have never had regular checkups. The medical records are thin, and because the trips are sporadic, the doctors cannot develop treatment plans or bonds with patients.

Despite the challenges, doctors and pilots make their treks to remote, rural pueblos again and again. They go for the adventure, excitement and camaraderie. And they go because it is a way to practice back-to-basics medicine, without paperwork and politics, without managed care and malpractice suits.

"In America, we have what doctors call the liability lottery," said Chuck Montague, a pilot and retired gynecologist from Ventura. "Patients are all hoping to make it big. That doesn't exist here. They trust me and I trust them."


Most of all, the volunteers go because they say it's rewarding and inspiring to treat people who don't have access to medical care. In one day, the Aeromedicos often treat more than 100 patients. "You can't put it into words," Montague said. "You just feel good."

Montague, who joined the group more than a decade ago, said he was drawn to the work because it was a way to travel into a different world and help others. Montague said the challenges made him appreciate what he had at his Ventura practice.

The 76-year-old doctor with smoothed white hair and kind blue eyes also loves any chance to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies, flying his Cessna 182.

The town of Cadeje stretches just a few blocks, and there are fewer than 100 full-time residents. There is a boarding school for the children of nearby ranchers and farmers, one community store and a handful of well-worn homes. The landscape is sprinkled with cactus and underbrush.

Before the Aeromedicos' visits, the clinic used to be an abandoned building, without running water or electricity. Now, as one doctor put it, "it's a shell, but it has water and a roof." The roof is covered with palm fronds, and the lights and ceiling fans run off a generator. Inside, purple flowered sheets separate the examining rooms, and posters about birth control and safe dental care decorate the walls.

In the pharmacy, the plywood shelves are crammed with syringes, surgical masks and rubber gloves. The bottles of pills are organized with labels such as "allergy and asthma," "pain medication," and "cold and cough."


Wearing their Sunday best--cowboy hats for the men and colorful dresses for the women--the month's patients clutched the Manila folders that held their brief medical histories. The files listed English words most patients couldn't read: "diabetes," "hernias," "skin infections."

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