Colgate’s Global Health Initiative Trip: Two Countries Come Together

It has now been a full week since I returned from Chihuahua, Mexico, where I had the privilege of accompanying eight very talented Colgate pre-med students on a journey that I believe has changed our lives forever. I was not alone on this student-inspired journey –– I  was accompanied by two very close friends. One is a former colleague who is a talented Mexican surgeon and Chair of the University of Chihuahua Medical School’s Department of Reconstructive Surgery, Dr. Raul Favela. The other is a former New Mexico State University colleague, a world-renowned scholar in bilingual education and a close friend since we first worked together in Peru more than 30 years ago, Dr. Herman Garcia. The week since our return has not been easy, as I have witnessed the actions taken by our nation’s new President against our southern neighbors. Those very same neighbors, and now close friends, who opened their homes, their communities, their health delivery clinics, hospitals and centers and, most importantly, their hearts to all of us, especially the eight young women representing Colgate University.

Our journey together took us to a variety of places: to New Mexico State University to witness its concern with –– and programs –– for the area’s financially-challenged, health-threatened and marginalized refugee population; to the University of Texas at El Paso to learn about its border-health commitment and its vast array of programs for the region’s vast migrant and largely undocumented communities; to Juarez, Mexico to learn first-hand from the Mexican perspective about the work of the Bi-national Commission on Border Health; and to Chihuahua City, Mexico to learn about the vast array of medical services and programs offered by its premier university, la Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, and its community-based foundation, la Fundación del Empresariado Chihuahuense, A.C. (FECHAC), a highly successful foundation that supports hundreds of local health-related community programs throughout the state.

Most importantly, our journey took us to the Sierra Tarahumara region of Chihuahua, the predominantly indigenous, geographically remote, very mountainous, and formerly cartel-controlled area of the state where, for five days, we observed the urgent and vital medical care provided by one state-run and two nonprofit hospitals to the region’s indigenous population. It was at these hospitals, especially the Hospital Mision Tarahumara, Samachique, Chihuahua, that we witnessed life-saving healthcare delivery by volunteer MDs who neither ask for nor receive compensation for their services. This hospital alone attends to, on average, well over 5,000 Tarahumara indigenous patients annually. These hospitals and all their equipment plus the living costs of their surgeons, physicians, nurses and administrators are totally dependent upon donations, largely from faith-based groups both within and outside of Mexico.  

Our last evening together was back in Chihuahua City, at the home of our Mexican host and dear friend Dr. Raul Favela and his wife Maru. It was there that we were warmly and generously feted — with piñatas, local conjunto musical groups, an array of Mexican tapas and a sumptuous Mexican dinner. However, most importantly, we were also met by a large entourage of loving and gratified Mexican medical and university personnel, who were there to meet and to thank our Colgate students for their interest in and concern with the health-care delivery challenges facing the country’s most marginalized populations.

I was asked to speak on this occasion. And as I was about to do so, looking over the large assembled binational group awaiting my words, I was overcome with emotion. For a moment, I was unable to speak. When I was finally able to do so, I offered a toast to all our Mexican hosts and friends present, as well as those absent, who had made the week-long Chihuahua portion of our journey so poignant, so eye-opening, so very successful, telling them that they were the most wonderful neighbors that any nation could ask for. I couldn’t help but feel that, in front of me, all of us present at this wonderful concluding celebration, constituted a “bridge.” A “bridge” between our two countries and cultures that has brought all of us together in mutual love and respect. A “bridge” that could and should serve as a model to bring us all together — Mexicans and Americans. A “bridge” that has the potential to outshine the infamous Wall between our countries that our President has promised to build, a monolithic structure that will stand in total opposition to everything we learned during our journey. As I spoke, I suppressed tears  —  not of sorrow but of gratitude for the wonderful journey just concluded, for all the wonderfully talented, incredibly generous and very kind people who showed all of us how so much could be accomplished with so little, for a journey that has changed our lives forever.

If you want to get involved in this journey on a smaller level, consider attending the brown bag lunch presentation, “GHI Mexico Public Health Initiative.” It will take place on February 16 at noon in the Center for International Programs, room 101 McGregory.