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Solving a Maze at the Border

Celia Diaz's agency helps bring ailing Americans stranded in Mexico back to the U.S. The San Diego grandmother may ruffle feathers, but she gets results.

November 25, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Not until their second car wreck of the afternoon did Jimmy and Erik Wilder's road-trip troubles in Mexico curdle into outright calamity.

The earlier police shakedowns in Tijuana, the night lost on Baja California country roads, even the flat tire that capsized the Americans' rented Chevrolet--all seemed minor when the Mexican ambulance carrying them to safety also crashed.

Suddenly father and son found themselves facing a pile of sorry circumstances: Jimmy, 51, bleeding profusely from a head wound after the ambulance collided with a pickup; the damaged rental car abandoned who knows where; foreign surroundings; no Spanish; uncertain insurance; a new ambulance driver asking for cash they didn't have.

"By then," recalled Erik, 25, who was unhurt, "I'm just trying to get back to the border."

To their surprise, a little more than two hours later Jimmy was getting top-notch care at the UC San Diego Medical Center. And a few days later, despite two broken vertebrae, the retired groundskeeper had rebounded enough to fly home to Florida with his son.

What smoothed the Wilders' way out of Mexico was a flurry of telephone calls they knew nothing about. Making those calls was Celia Diaz, a diminutive San Diego grandmother who for more than two decades has gotten Americans out of bad jams across the border.

She set up the ambulance transfer, arranged the border crossing and briefed the U.S. emergency room doctor--a ritual Diaz has performed countless times for people who had nowhere else to turn. Even officials--in both countries--have depended on her volunteer services.

Diaz is a controversial fixer on a border traversed by millions and rife with pitfalls: language barriers, contrasting legal and health systems, and maddening bureaucracies.

Based in a drab office building in Chula Vista, her volunteer group--the Binational Emergency Medical Care Committee--says it has helped transfer 12,000 U.S. residents injured in Mexico over 24 years. It runs, mostly behind the scenes, on a paltry budget.

Diaz fields calls to the committee's hotline, a number familiar to many veteran tourists, Mexican ambulance workers and doctors. In the Wilder case, the Ensenada ambulance company phoned.

Often, the callers are panicked relatives. They want to get their loved ones back to the United States, where trauma facilities are better.

A binder, crammed with Diaz's scribbled notes, is a logbook of woe: car wrecks and comas, boating mishaps and broken bones, hemorrhages, four-story falls and miscarriages.

"When people don't know what to do or who to call on the border, they call us," she said. And they do so, by day or in the wee hours, as many as 500 times a year. A large majority of the calls come from Baja California, with nearly a fourth from tourist resorts far south of the border.

Diaz, raised in Mexico and now a U.S. citizen, is an expert at unknotting the border's red tape. Now in her 50s, she seems to know someone--or someone who knows someone--at every police station, city hall, jailhouse, military base, airport, seaport, rescue squad, emergency room and clinic from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas.

Both Admired and Criticized

She has been the go-between during U.S. Coast Guard rescues in Baja, has extracted U.S. citizens from jail and, after the 1994 shooting of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, was asked by Mexico to help arrange his transfer by helicopter to San Diego for medical care. (Colosio died in Tijuana before the trip took place.)

Her admirers, including many in U.S. law enforcement and at the border, say Diaz's organization has saved dozens of lives. At the moment, said Lori Senini, border health coordinator for San Diego County, "it's the only system that works along the border. When I crash and burn in Mexico, that's who I'm going to call."

But after so many years, Diaz also has generated hard feelings. Detractors mutter privately that she is self-promoting and turf conscious, perhaps even to the point of delaying an official solution to the problem of transferring American patients back to this country.

Some also question the propriety of running the tax-exempt binational group from the same office as her own business, which maintains a network of doctors in Mexico for U.S. insurers.

Ask around long enough and what emerges is a nuanced portrait: a tireless and charismatic provider of mercy whose single-mindedness has irritated many in the region's medical community.

Diaz said she has ruffled feathers because she is relentless and beholden to no one when it comes to getting patients into the United States. Though soft-spoken and affectionate, even with new acquaintances, Diaz can badger as well as charm.

She dresses with verve--favoring eye-catching suits and spike heels that boost her above 5 feet--and is likewise no shrinking violet in her work.

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