When a pharmaceutical representative casually asked Pasadena pediatrician Dr. John Rodarte if he had any leftover medicine to donate to a clinic in Mexico, Rodarte pretty much stopped in his tracks: “Tell me more.”
Anyone who knows the Huntington Hospital’s department of pediatrics chair knows that meant Rodarte would be riding shotgun on the very next medical mission to Tijuana, Mexico. He had to see for himself the work being done by the late Dr. Kevin Lake, a Pasadena pulmonologist and founder of an informal group providing medical care just across the border in one of the poorest neighborhoods built around a former landfill, called simply “El Dumpe.”
Rodarte helped Lake — who died two years ago — run the impromptu, pop-up clinic out of the back of a car, treating infections or hyper-tension and distributing medicines. They worked in conjunction with a reverend from a local church, Carlos Montoya, who had founded La Roca Ministries.
Residents would shyly ask them, are you going to come back?
“We said absolutely, we’ll see you in three months,” Rodarte recalled. “And they would just shake their heads, and say, ‘Sure, that’s what they all say.’”
But after more than 15 years, the group, now a full-fledged nonprofit called Healing Hearts Across Borders, has never missed a trip, even despite potential dangers presented by drug cartels, bird flu or torrential rains.
The group unites a team of about 120 American volunteers, including physicians, dentists, laboratory and pharmacy specialists who are able to see as many as 1,000 Mexican children, women and men on one weekend visit every three months. The clinic has become a steady source of consistent, quality health care for those who otherwise would go without. The team also has partnered with USC and UC San Diego pre-med and med students, who began a chart system for the patients to track their health history.
Rodarte, also a head pediatrician at Descanso Pediatrics, often sees entire families, especially a mom with three to four children plus children from an extended family. Sometimes, they just need a checkup, other times they need antibiotics for coughs, colds and infections.
He tries to educate them on proper nutrition and sanitation for preemptive care, but this can prove difficult given the residents’ living conditions.
“How do you tell someone to eat healthier, when they have no money for fruits and vegetables? How do you say, ‘Be more cleanly,’ when they’re living in a hut with a dirt floor?”
Many of the residents don’t have running water or electricity. Rodarte recalled meeting a mom who came to check her children for their constant stomach pain.
“After talking for a while, we finally got to the bottom of it … her husband was on drugs and left, and they often didn’t have food. She never knew where the next meal would come from. The kids were hungry,” he said. “We did what we could; we collected some money that would help her make it for a while, and she left knowing that someone cared.”
Sometimes, he knows, that’s all the team can do.
“We can’t change their circumstance, and sometimes, it isn’t even about what we’re able to do or achieve in one day, but just showing them that someone cares can make a big difference. Listening and reassuring them that, medically, they are OK, makes an immense difference,” he said. “I feel that if you’ve helped just one person, it makes it worth it.”
Rodarte recruited his mother, Anita Rodarte, to help out early on with translating for the team. Although of Mexican heritage, the Rodartes lived in the United States for generations. “I grew up hearing it, but I only had a working Spanish, at best,” he said.
Now, Anita Rodarte is treasurer for the team, knows virtually all the families in the medical-site community and organizes transportation for the volunteers from the L.A. area. She helps interview patients, finds out their needs and directs them to the right doctor.
“We’ve watched the families grow; we have seen the children as children and now we are seeing them as adults with their own children,” Anita Rodarte said. “I find this very rewarding work. We’ve built really strong, special relationships there.”
The Rodartes have even hosted children in need of emergency operations, helping the families recover at their home in Monterey Park until they can return to Mexico. Anita recalled the story of one little girl, Maribel, who is one of HHAB’s biggest success stories.
“A mother carried her daughter into the clinic, and she was just blue … the mother said she was dying,” Anita Rodarte recounted. The little girl was Maribel, then only about 4 years old, who had congenital heart disease. “The doctors there had told her there was nothing that could be done.”
The group was able to coordinate with government agencies and get her to UCLA, which agreed to do the life-saving surgery for free. Now, she’s a happy, healthy 14-year-old who wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
“We’re Facebook friends,” adds John Rodarte, who has made HHAB a family affair, often involving relatives and recruiting nephews and nieces to help when they can.
Rodarte also recruits colleagues: Fellow HHAB volunteer Dr. Beth Julian-Wang, who practices out of Huntington Hospital and is faculty at the obstetrics and gynecology department at USC, became active at the nonprofit about eight years ago, after reacquainting with Rodarte, with whom she was a medical school classmate.
OBGYNs are treasured at the clinic, Anita Rodarte noted, especially for the prenatal care they can offer expecting mothers.
“I take as many prenatal vitamins as I can, along with my Doppler [machine] so they can hear the baby’s heartbeat… many women have never heard it before,” she said.
The facilities are bare, and Julian-Wang has given gynecological exams just with a lawn chair. Many of those pregnant are just girls, 14 or 15 years old, and some have venereal diseases.
“It’s pretty grimy, there is really nothing sterile, we can’t even wash our hands. The hardest part of seeing our patients is seeing what limited resources they have. It’s hard but it makes you feel good knowing you’re doing some good,” she said. She recalled one day when she saw a patient with lice, another with scabies and another with chicken pox.
“I went home and took an hour-long shower, I felt so itchy, but then also knowing … that they couldn’t go do the same is hard.”
As the organization grows, so have the site visits. Although the residents around the “El Dumpe” landfill petitioned the government to close the site for good, another landfill opened on another side of Tijuana. Poor people often follow the dumps to make money off the recycling to be found there.
HHAB President Dave Rose, now retired from research at UC San Diego, has led the coordinating efforts to run the diagnostics lab at the weekend clinics. Rose also goes down with a team of UC San Diego students to help monthly at La Roca Ministries men shelter. The nonprofit’s trips have also become an important part of the students’ practical experience, especially if they are applying to medical school.
“It’s become a sophisticated mentoring program for our students — many have gone on to become doctors. It’s both medical experience and volunteer community service. We try to make it beneficial for everybody,” Rose said.
He praised Rodarte and his mom, Anita, for helping to guide HHAB from a grassroots organization into an official nonprofit, noting that John Rodarte is not a man who knows how to sit still. An active hiker and mountain climber, Rodarte also works in his spare time as a reserve Los Angeles County deputy sheriff with the Montrose Search and Rescue team, assisting on more than 200 recoveries in Los Angeles National Forest.
Rodarte, known as a fast-talker, also is a medical staff member for the Dodgers. It was on a team visit that he shared his passion for HHAB with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who has now become one of the nonprofits’ biggest donors.
Gonzalez, who himself hails from Northern Mexico, came in one day with a check for the nonprofit.
“When he gave me that check I kind of did a double take. I’m not one usually at a loss for words, but when I saw that amount I really was at a loss for words,” Rodarte said.
While monetary donations are always welcome, “You can always do more with more money,” he notes, Rodarte especially encourages people to volunteer their time, and sign up for a trip.
“There is so much to do that’s not medical. There’s a lot of manual labor and distributing to be done,” he said, noting the group now distributes rice and beans, has face painting for the children and organizes a hot dog tent.
To volunteer money or time to Healing Hearts Across Borders, visit hhab.org.