Nursing students help state’s migrant workers

Program serves average of 1,000 seasonal laborers each year.

It’s 8 p.m. in the vast fields of Southeast Georgia. After laboring away for more than 10 hours in the blistering heat and sun, dozens of migrant workers arrive home to volunteers dressed in blue scrubs.

Over 60 individuals, mainly professors and medical students, have traveled from Atlanta to set up makeshift clinics and provide free health care services. For the majority of these temporary agricultural workers benefited with the H-2A visa, it will be the only medical attention they receive this year.

The migrant workers cannot conceal their excitement upon discovering the mountain of donated clothing, which even includes new rubber boots for better protection while working in the field.

“Many farm workers are forgotten about. They don’t have medical insurance and are low income. They grow our vegetables, they offer us a great service, and we don’t do very much for them. These workers and their children are probably the most vulnerable population in the country, ” said Judy Wold, director of the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project, an intensive two-week community service program offered through Emory University School of Medicine.

Wold is also a Distinguished Professor for Educational Leadership at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University.

The initiative, originally coordinated by Georgia State University, was created in 1996 to offer free medical services to migrant and seasonal workers in rural Georgia.

The workers receive foot care and treatments for the burns they suffer due to being in regular contact with pesticides; dental cleanings; and glucose tests, as well as help for muscular pain.

“I was picking pumpkins and some chemicals got on me and burned my feet, ” said Jose Martin, a 48-year-old from Mexico. After applying a special ointment the volunteers gave him, Martin’s feet were healed and pain free in a few days.

The most common medical condition the farm workers suffer is muscle pain, specifically of the back and neck, due to constant bending during a 10- to 12-hour work day.

“Other chronic problems include diabetes, hypertension, sexually transmitted diseases and iron deficiencies, ” said Laura Layne, program volunteer, Emory professor and deputy chief nurse at the Georgia Department of Community Health.

The program also provides educational tools and resources. Gabriel Vega not only received medicine for his back pain, but he also learned about the different types of exercises he could do to alleviate the pain.

The farm workers are not the only beneficiaries of this project, however. Every morning the volunteers go to a local school to offer health care services to the children of the field workers. According to Wold, the children suffer medical conditions that range from obesity and anemia to dental problems.

This experience has allowed Stephanie Medrano, a nursing student at Emory, to give back in a small way.

“They give us the food that we eat every day, and the most important thing is to help them continue forward in their lives. They work hard to earn money and support their families who are far away, and to live a better life, ” said Medrano, who is herself of Mexican origin.

Every year the program serves an average of 1,000 people, and more than 15,000 migrant and seasonal workers have received free services over the 20 years of the project’s existence.

For Layne, getting to know the workers and providing them with much-needed medical treatments has given new meaning to the fruits and vegetables on her table.

“I learned a lot about the culture, the poverty that exists in this area and about the farmers who people really don’t know are here, who are working and are a huge part of the agricultural business. It really impacted me to learn about this part of the economy that many people don’t know about, ” said Layne.