It’s Easy For Migrants To Get Sick; Harder To Get Treatment

Listen Now

Tucked in the corner of an old school gym, adults and children regularly line up in front of Dr. Bert Johansson. They are migrants, waiting for treatment at a pop-up clinic in El Paso, Texas.

The clinic doesn't look like much — it's no more than a circle of folding chairs around a table spread with medical supplies.

Yet, for migrants recently released from federal processing facilities, this clinic could mean the difference between life or death.

Earlier this month, two Guatemalan children died in U.S. custody, spurring questions over the quality of medical care at Border Patrol processing centers. Federal officials have since ordered more rigorous medical screenings of child migrants.

Community volunteers are also responding to the arrival of Central American families fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States — with pop-up clinics at local shelters. These clinics are staffed by volunteers such as Johansson and run entirely on goodwill.

Donations pay for basic medical supplies: cough syrup, hydrogen peroxide and diaper rash ointment. Otherwise, volunteers bring their own supplies.

"A lot of us brought our own stethoscopes and otoscopes and over the counter medicines. We had some ways of getting prescription meds," Johansson said. "We just lined up the kids and saw them."

Sometimes volunteers don't have all the supplies they need. Recently, Johansson wanted to test a Guatemalan man with lesions on his foot for diabetes. He couldn't because he didn't have a blood glucose detector.

They ended the appointment without being able to test the patient.

High risk of children getting sick

Some of Johansson's patients have been vomiting, some are coughing and others are severely dehydrated. Many are children.

Medical experts have raised concerns about conditions inside federal processing facilities. Numerous eyewitnesses have told NPR that migrants are held in crowded, unsanitary, windowless spaces, sometimes on the floor, for days, often with little more than a thin Mylar blanket to keep them warm.

Experts say it's an easy place for anyone to get sick, especially kids.

As a pediatrician who works at the El Paso Children's Hospital, Johansson takes special care with his youngest patients. He high-fives them and after one 10-year-old boy gulps medicine from a cup, Johansson calls him "mi hermano," meaning "my brother" in Spanish.

Johansson has already admitted some children to the hospital for various issues such as bacterial infections, pneumonia, and severe dehydration.

He said the ailments he sees among migrants might have been milder if they had been treated sooner.

This was the case in 2014, when Johansson volunteered to treat migrants at pop-up government shelters within hours of their apprehension. Now, he says he can't treat migrants until days later, because they spend more time in federal processing facilities. Customs and Border Protection has yet to explain why.

Volunteer doctors are working overtime

Johansson is just one of many in a group of volunteer doctors and nurses who are working overtime to help migrants. Many of them put in 60 hours a week at their regular jobs, then come to makeshift shelter clinics in their free time.

This kind of work is not new for Johansson, whose previous volunteer stints include treating patients in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But he specifically moved down to the border from New York because he said he felt that he could do some good there.

Helping migrants holds special meaning for him — he is the son of immigrants. Johansson's father is Swedish. His mother is Honduran.

"I see my mother when I see these women," he said while crying. "These are very poor, very vulnerable people, who obviously love their children and they want a better life."

The first patient Johansson treated, back in October, was from his mother's hometown.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit