TIJUANA - Twenty-one years ago this week, a group of doctors from San Diego decided to make a difference. They were tired of watching children turned away for health care because their parents had no insurance or couldn’t pay for it. So, they helped found an all-volunteer hospital designed to treat any child in need of medical care.
What seemed like an impossible dream is now the only pediatric hospital of its kind in Baja California treating children from both sides of the border.
We were driven to a small valley east of Tijuana in what appeared to be half a world away. In reality, it was a mere 45 minutes from downtown San Diego. It’s a place the locals call “familias de la basura” or the families of the Tijuana Dump.
It’s no ordinary dump, it's a shantytown, home to families and their children in need, who together dig through the trash searching for anything of value. They are people like Nicholas. He and his children search for scrap metal and if they're lucky they'll manage to scrape together about $4 worth of recycling each day.
The children know very little of the world outside this dump. In fact, the first time they had ever seen a camera was the day we arrived. So you can understand that most have never seen the inside of a hospital.
"They've never seen a doctor,” says Alejandra Guzman who works as a Pediatric Nutritionist at the hospital. “Most of them are born here and without any kind of medical help. Some of the kids don't even have a name. The parents don't remember when they were born."
That's where people like Dr. Betty Jones come in. She's co-founder of Hospital Infantil, which is the only pediatric hospital in Baja California and just half a mile from the border in Tijuana.
"The need is tremendous," says Dr. Jones as she scans a full waiting room on a busy Saturday afternoon. "I've always said we didn't know what to do, but we knew there was a need and we just jumped in over our heads and we're still swimming to shore."
The hospital treats about 40,000 children a year for numerous issues. On the day 10News paid a visit, it was “Therapy Day” and volunteers from hospitals and universities in both San Diego and Los Angeles were working with children who had a variety of disabilities. The waiting room was packed for hours with families patiently waiting and grateful for the chance to see a doctor or therapist.
"Each team has a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a translator, and two students from different schools in training to become physical therapists," explains Dr. Jones.
The room was a bevy of activity. In the middle of the room were plastic crates filled with hundreds of leg and foot braces donated for children with Cerebral Palsy.
"She had these braces before but they were hurting,” says therapist Ellen Norton from Rady Children’s Hospital as she fits a young girl with a new set of leg braces. “So we're going to see what we can do to modify them. Or get her a new pair."
Each team of doctors and therapists come to the hospital monthly with truckloads of donations. They are piled everywhere throughout the room. Tables are filled with bottles, formula, and diapers. Another corner of the room has wheelchairs of all sizes and children are being fitted for the proper size. And shoes, there are hundreds of shoes. They can never get enough shoes. Patrick Wilkens who works as the Physical Therapist Manager at Rady Children’s Hospital explains the reason for so many shoes.
"If you give them braces they can no longer fit in their shoes,” says Wilkens. “So we need to increase their size by at least one or two sizes, and that's why we have shoes."
Hours later the waiting room is still full. Parents continue to wait patiently for an opportunity that may not come again for months. The doctors, therapists, and students are also happy to serve a long day until the last child is seen.
"It's a reciprocal relationship,” says Dr. Alan Chong Lee from Mount St. Mary’s University. “We get so much more learning from them versus us giving things away."
Before the day ends, a young mother and her baby from the Tijuana dump are escorted in. Five months old and this is the first time the baby has ever had medical care.
"Correct it now or work in it now and you probably won't have a problem," says Dr. Jones with a satisfied smile. "It's the economic status that really dictates so many other confounding problems."
For more information about the hospital and the Foundation for the Children of the Californias visit www.usfcc.org