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Bringing healing to Duroville

A UC Irvine medical school professor aims to provide healthcare to the beleaguered trailer park's residents -- and teach his students something about poverty right here in the United States.

October 08, 2009|David Kelly

THERMAL, CALIF. — High noon in Duroville and nothing moved but a swirl of dust and a lone American flag flapping in the scorching breeze.

Wild dogs, stricken by heat and light, could barely lift their heads.

Dr. Alberto Manetta squinted hard at the jumble of sagging trailers and dirt roads winding through the 40-acre patch of California desert.

In the months ahead, this impoverished mobile home community of up to 4,000 mostly Latino farmworkers would serve as a laboratory for the UC Irvine medical professor and about a dozen student volunteers -- sort of a model Third World village just two hours from campus. They would forge relationships with residents, ferret out their medical histories and devise low-cost ways to treat their ailments and better their lives.

But there was something else.

Manetta wanted his medical students to see poverty up close, to understand that being a doctor carries responsibilities and rewards beyond money and status. They didn't need to travel to the developing world to experience it. In many respects they were already there.

"I don't know what they will do later in life, but after this experience I can promise you they won't be doing cosmetic surgery in Beverly Hills," he said. "This needs to be a part of every medical curriculum."

The U.S. government tried to close Duroville for years because of health and safety concerns. Last spring a judge put the park, which sits on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, into federal receivership for two years, hoping tenants eventually would find other places to live.

Manetta, a women's health and cancer specialist, hopes to stay with the project as long as he can.

He has held meetings with residents to explain his plans. At one gathering, pregnant women, children and a number of Purepechas, an indigenous Mexican people who make up a large percentage of the park population, crammed into a small, stuffy room to hear him speak.

"The reason we want to help you is because UC Irvine believes it has a social obligation to the community," he explained in Spanish. "We are aware of the problems you have getting healthcare. We are going to train many of you to help us."

He said he hoped to put a clinic in the park, obtain grants for medical treatment, improve access to fresh food and address other quality-of-life issues. Wells Fargo, he said, had agreed to donate two trailers for use as a child-care facility, and social outreach groups were helping as well.

After making his pitch, Manetta and his students gave free medical exams. People lined up at the front of the room for blood tests and diabetes screenings. A few wheezing fans blew hot air around, giving the place a balmy, tropical feel.

The students found multiple cases of untreated high blood pressure, infections and diabetes. Back problems were common, a side effect of picking fruit and vegetables year after year.

Many residents are in the country illegally and have no insurance. One man said a popular treatment for diabetes was to kill a goat and drink bile from its gallbladder.

Asked what she would do if she got cancer, Domitia Clemente, 36, smiled fatalistically. "If I got cancer, I'd ask God for help," she said.

More likely she would ignore the symptoms until they got so bad she had to go to an emergency room, and by then it would be too late, Manetta said.

"These are people who put food on our tables. We pay them less than we should, and when they get sick and old we want them to disappear," he said.

The medical team's first priority may be the toughest: to assess the health and living conditions of every person in the park. To get help with the large task, they've been training residents to do surveys.

"It's important that people trust you," student Anna Fellman, 25, told a group of trainees. "You need a high level of respect and integrity. This is a big responsibility. You have to want to do something for your community."

Another student, Nancy Anaya, 26, worked with a group across the room.

Anaya came to the United States illegally as a young girl. Her father worked in a laundry, and her mother cleaned houses. She became a citizen at age 18.

"My life's experiences have put me in a situation where I could not be a regular doctor," she said. "People talk about doing international aid work, but you don't need to go to a developing country. I studied in Benin, Togo, Cuba and Mexico. The conditions are very similar here. They are actually more complex because you have the immigration problem."

Manetta, 65, was born in Argentina, worked in Nicaragua and helped start a free clinic in Tustin. He is director of the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement at UC Irvine. When he read newspaper accounts of Duroville, he saw a chance for his students to gain experience and do some good.

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