In Mexico, New Clinicians Ready for ‘Year of Constant Growth’

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Medical training program continues vital work amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Each year, Partners In Health trains a new cohort of 10 first-year clinicians, who work in rural communities in Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo by Leslie Friday / PIH)

It was the middle of summer in southern Mexico, and the vibrant sun warmed the arms of 10 young clinicians arriving to Chiapas. Little did they realize that their one-year experience ahead would, quite likely, change their lives—and that they would not see the world the same way ever again.

Every year, 10 clinicians arrive in Chiapas to complete their social service year with Compañeros En Salud (CES), as Partners In Health is known locally. This year’s cohort of pasantes—a Spanish word for first-year doctors—will work in marginalized areas of this remote, mountainous region, where access to health care is difficult and challenges have only intensified during COVID-19.

Since 2011, the pasante program has placed newly minted doctors and obstetric nurses in rural communities in Chiapas—the poorest state in Mexico—to live and work. The pasantes go through a rigorous selection process where they are interviewed by the staff of Compañeros En Salud. Those who are chosen serve in the 9 rural primary care clinics that CES operates in partnership with the Mexican government, a community hospital, and Casa Materna—a center dedicated to maternal health.

Video Credit: PIH Staff

Before CES began its work, many Chiapanecans lacked reliable access to health care for a variety of reasons, including not enough clinicians to cover clinics, irregular supplies of medications, and ill-equipped facilities.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges in access to care. Residents find isolation requirements difficult in multigenerational households. And most cannot work from home should they become sick, as they farm corn and coffee as their main means of income. For their part, pasantes have been trained to use personal protective equipment, distribute masks to their patients, encourage preventative measures such as handwashing, and know protocols for CES’ COVID-19 response

When they eventually arrive in their communities, pasantes have been properly oriented and know visiting CES supervisors will be there for support.

Dr. Karen Martín will be serving the community of Plan de la Libertad for the next year. “I want to grow professionally with CES, but I know I will grow as a person too,” she says. “I want to have a better understanding of these communities and their people, getting to know them, how they think, opening up to them, but mostly being able to help them.”

In August, Martín joined the nine other clinicians in her cohort in Jaltenango, the city where CES is headquartered in Chiapas, for three days of orientation. The pasantes met each other and learned about the program, traditions in the community, emergency protocols and safety before heading into their respective communities.

The excitement was tangible.

“I strongly believe the best way to help vulnerable populations is through proper health care,” says Dr. Stephanie Picazo, another new pasante. “Compañeros En Salud has shown me this is possible. I’m excited about living in Laguna del Cofre, meeting the families, learning about their corn and coffee crops and, mostly, impacting this place.”

Dr. Stephanie Picazo, a pasante in this year’s cohort. (Photo by Paola Rodriguez / PIH)

Many had known about Compañeros En Salud and its mission for years, including the training and mentorship opportunities it provides. And they knew the competition—including the application process—for just ten positions would be intense.

Dr. Carlos Popoca was drawn to the program for its focus on health equity. 

“I decided to come here for my social service year because I am aware of the inequality of my country and the lack of access to basic quality health care services in a place like Chiapas,” says Popoca, who will spend his year in the community of Salvador Urbina. “Taking your knowledge and sharing it with a rural community is something every young physician should do. I want to better understand the context of my patients, their culture and diversity, as well as the situations that lead them to illness, in order to be able to help them.”

Pasantes are often eager to serve, even if it means living far from their families for a full year; most come from the capital of Mexico, or surrounding states, as far as 15 hours away from Chiapas. Many who complete their social service year with Compañeros En Salud are so moved by the work that they request to stay to become full-time staff members.

“I feel like CES is the place where you can make a real change in the world,” says Dr. Karen Gutiérrez, a pasante based in the community of Reforma. “We all arrive here aiming to bring the best type of attention to those who need it the most. This will be a year of constant growth.”

Karen Gutiérrez, a pasante based in Reforma. (Photo by Paola Rodriguez / PIH)

Article originally posted on pih.org.

Learn more about how Compañeros En Salud is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Chiapas.

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