Flying Samaritans provide free medical care for underserved Mexican communities

Video by Sean Logan | Multimedia Producer

Azucena Guadalupe Cota Vazquez smiled as she watched her husband take his first steps with his new prosthetic leg. It was a Thursday in January, and he was learning how to walk again.

With the help of crutches, Francisco Javier Coronado Galindo slowly walked up and down a hallway at Phoenix Orthotics & Prosthetics Labs to test out his new leg. Watching closely was Bob Press, a certified prosthetist/orthotist for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.

Small steps

“Not bad,” Press said. “Not bad at all.”

Three days earlier, Coronado Galindo and his wife met Press for the first time. Press was faced with a complicated case. Coronado Galindo had a hip disarticulation, meaning his entire leg had been amputated at the hip. To make matters worse, he also had a hemipelvectomy—part of his pelvis was missing. Because of this, it would be more difficult to provide structural support.

To begin, Press made a plaster cast of Coronado Galindo’s torso. He then modified the cast and refined it to make use of Coronado Galindo’s skeletal structure.

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After he was fitted with a diagnostic socket, the device that would connect the prosthesis to his body, Press made more adjustments to the cast until everything was optimal. All that was left to do was the fabrication of the socket and leg.

One of the exciting parts about working with patients such as Coronado Galindo, Press said, is that there is no option to not be successful.

“They don’t think about the fact that, ‘Well, maybe I won’t like this; maybe it’s going to hurt me; maybe I’ll just not do it,’” he said. “They want this prosthesis. It’s very dear to them, and they will make it work. And he will make it work.”

Press said a prosthetic leg like Coronado Galindo’s would normally cost about $20,000. But with the help of Phoenix Orthotics & Prosthetics Labs and a group called the Flying Samaritans, Coronado Galindo received his new leg free of charge.

Press, who has been volunteering his services to the Flying Samaritans for almost 10 years, credits his graciousness to an obligation to leave earth a better place than it was before.

“It’s incredibly gratifying, and it never gets tiring,” he said.

The Flying Samaritans

The “Flying Sams,” as its members affectionately call themselves, is a nonprofit organization that provides free medical and healthcare services for undeserved people in Baja California, Mexico. The Flying Samaritans have a number of different clinics in areas where medical and healthcare services are not widespread.

The origins of the Flying Samaritans go all the way back to November 1961, when a pilot and five passengers were forced to land near the village of El Rosario because of inclement weather. Locals offered the group food and accommodations for the night. Wondering what they could do in return, the travelers asked if there was anything they could offer. Locals said there was a need for clothing, especially for children.

The Saturday before Christmas that year, they returned to El Rosario along with several other planes carrying food, clothing and toys. After many of the locals came to one of the volunteers, a doctor, for care, the idea for the Flying Samaritans was realized.

The Flying Samaritans’ Phoenix chapter, which was founded in 1990, helps hundreds of people in need of medical services each month for 10 months every year at their clinic in López Mateos.

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On the third Saturday of all but two months of the year, the Flying Samaritans travel to their medical clinic in Lopez Mateós, Baja California Sur, Mexico. (Photo by Sean Logan)

Unfortunately, not all cases can be helped at the clinic, which is small and has limited resources. With a large network of volunteers, however, the Flying Samaritans are able to help people with more complex medical issues.

Francisco Javier Coronado Galindo, a farmer from Ciudad Constitución, lost his entire right leg about a year ago. He spent a month in a hospital with an infection until his leg had to be amputated. Because the amputation was up to his hip, finding a place to get a proper prosthetic leg in Mexico was not an easy task.

But through family friends and other connections, he and his wife found the Flying Samaritans. They spent about half a year in the process of talking to people from the organization. Accommodations were made for Coronado Galindo to be brought to Phoenix, and after eight months without a leg, he was in Phoenix with a brand new leg and no financial burden.

ASU’s Flying Samaritans

While many volunteers are older professionals, one student volunteer, Tania Lebratti, saw the potential for an ASU Flying Samaritans club. Lebratti, who got involved with the Flying Samaritans with her mother, started a club at ASU for the organization last spring.

Lebratti founded the club after she met Dr. Allan Markus, the director of ASU Health Services, on one of her trips to the clinic. The two exchanged ideas and agreed that students could benefit from going on trips to the clinic, and that the clinic could benefit from having the students as well.

The club, which is sponsored by Markus, has had a good reception from students. To prepare students for the clinic, the club offers Spanish medical theory information. Lebratti said the students get a chance to meet people in the field they’re interested in by being in the club and volunteering at the clinic.

“Most of our students are pre-med, pre-health (or) pre-dental, so they get the opportunity to interact not only with students who are currently in professional school, but also with professionals,” Lebratti said.

In addition to volunteering for the Flying Samaritans and running the ASU club, Lebratti is also doing her honors thesis on the clinic in López Mateos. For her thesis, Lebratti is looking at some of the dynamics of the health resources in the communities that benefit from the clinic. Working with Markus, Lebratti said they will look at how the patients use the health resources there, including the clinic and the health care that some receive from the Mexican government.

“Because I’m an interpreter, I get to interact with the patients a lot more than some other people do when they’re there, and I really see how much they appreciate all the things that go on there,” Lebratti said. “But there’s always room to improve, so understanding some of these dynamics—there’s always ways to improve the clinics and improve the care we’re giving, and maybe meet some needs that aren’t being met.”

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Tania Lebratti, who founded the ASU Flying Samaritans club last spring, volunteers as a translator at the clinic. Lebratti is also working with Dr. Allan Markus, the director of ASU Health Services, for her honors thesis, which involves doing research about the clinic’s operations and the communities that benefit from it. (Photo by Sean Logan)

The Clinic

Named after former Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos, the fishing village Puerto Adolfo López Mateos is located on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, a popular destination for whale watching. But for the Flying Samaritans, López Mateos is a destination for giving back to people in need.

On the third Saturday of each month, small propeller planes land on the tiny airstrip made of dirt and seashells that lies next to the clinic. Before the day begins, patients line up along a fence outside the clinic, waiting for the gate to open. Some are locals, and some travel hours to receive free medical care.

After each plane lands, volunteer physicians, dentists, nurses, translators and other personnel walk to the clinic to prepare for a full workday. While this is happening, patients give their information and take a call number according to what type of care they need.

A few weeks after Coronado Galindo got his prosthetic leg in Phoenix, it was clinic day again in López Mateos. It was the Saturday after Valentine’s Day, and around 40 people had already lined up by 8 a.m. as the Flying Samaritans bus drove up to the clinic. As the planes started to fly in, volunteers worked quickly to open the clinic and began to take the first patients.

Several planes had landed within a couple of hours. Families and individuals sat in the shaded waiting area outside the clinic while volunteers and patients came in and out of the building. Among those waiting to be served was Coronado Galindo, who was there to see the clinic’s chiropractor.

By the end of the day, the Flying Samaritans had provided care for 278 patients. The demand for care ranged from general medicine, dental, chiropractic and pharmaceutical.

Throughout the day, Lebratti worked as a translator for patients and did research for her thesis at the clinic. Some volunteers speak little or no Spanish, so translators like Lebratti are crucial.

Dennis Gerlach, president of the Phoenix chapter, said having Lebratti and the ASU club has been a positive experience.

“Her enthusiasm and those of the students of ASU have really helped put a spark in the organization,” Gerlach said. “We appreciate that. And in addition to that, there was the research work that she’s done to try to help us better understand just exactly the needs of our patients and who we’re serving, and how we might serve them better.”

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Some people travel hours to get free care at the clinic. In February, volunteers at the clinic cared for 278 patients. (Photo by Sean Logan)

Improving the clinic

At the clinic, the medical providers see a lot of common issues among patients. However, ASU Director of Health Services Allan Markus said the preventative care is good.

“I think they’re facing the same issues that we do, which is diabetes, hypertension, asthma, smoking-related diseases,” Markus said. “They’re seeing the same things we do here in the U.S.; but the good news is, I think, for the most part, they do an excellent job of preventive care.”

One of the improvements the ASU club brought to the clinic was the scanning of patient records. Sometimes patients would lose records in between clinic visits, Markus said. But with the scanning of those records, the providers can now see them without struggling to try to figure a patient’s history. Additionally, Markus said this would help them look at what the common diseases and conditions are, so they can plan better for future trips.

“They’re thinking of ways that we can bring better follow up care as we go through. Some of those patients come back every month, so we do excellent follow-up care,” Markus said. “It’s making sure that the medical records are always there, and Tania and her group are really working on that.”

Markus, who has been a volunteer for about seven years, said he was amazed by the gratefulness of all the people at the clinic.

“It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re working down there to see how every patient is very grateful,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about their insurance is for knowing how we take care of them. … No matter what their insurance is in Mexico, we see everybody.”

“A second opportunity to live”

In Ciudad Constitución, a day before the February clinic, Coronado Galindo sat with his wife and their families, as well as some of the people who helped them find the Flying Samaritans. Although he was still using his crutches to help him walk, he was learning to walk again with his prosthetic leg.

“In Phoenix, everyone treated me marvelously. They gave me my prosthetic. … Imagine another chance to be able to walk,” Coronado Galindo said. “It’s something that I can’t describe. I didn’t even expect to be able to walk again.”

Coronado Galindo had begun a three-hour daily rehab, which involved balancing the prosthetic’s weight and practicing without his crutches. After not being able to work for so long, he said he was eager to walk without the crutches and start working again.

“I see myself working. … I see myself giving all my effort,” he said. “I see, to be honest, myself like a totally normal person. I’m now like everyone else.”

As he put it, it was a second opportunity to live.

 Reach the reporter at slogan2@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @SeanLogan24

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified which leg Francisco Javier Coronado Galindo lost.