Immigrants aren't getting health care, so parish brings it to them

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly

By Gina Christian

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (CNS) — For immigrants
in the country without legal permission, a routine doctor’s visit can be an
occasion for panic. Without papers, immigrants fear deportation when they enter
the waiting room.

Unwilling to take such a risk,
they avoid seeking medical attention even in life-threatening cases.

Language barriers that make it
difficult to describe their ailments or to understand medical advice, lack of
transportation to health care facilities and working long hours at jobs that
don’t provide paid time off all add up to many immigrants missing out on vital
health care.

St. Patrick Parish in Norristown
is working to change this situation with help from local clinicians, volunteers
— and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

After the noon Mass on the first
Sunday of each month, the parish hosts a walk-in health fair for area
residents, many of whom are Mexican immigrants, in the church’s basement hall.

Participants receive free
screenings for diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension, eye and dental conditions.

Pregnant women can also obtain
prenatal vitamins and baby boxes – sturdy, cardboard cribs designed to prevent
or sudden infant death syndrome.

The monthly health fair is vital
to the local community’s underserved members.

“The people who come here have
total and complete trust in the priests,” said Father Gus Puleo, pastor of St.
Patrick Parish and an adjunct professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo
Seminary. “They always come to me with concerns about immigration and medical
matters. I think this trust is due to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is a major
force in the Mexican community. We work with her.”

The parish also works with area
medical practitioners who train leaders within the community as “promotores
de la salud,” or “health promoters.”

The promotores receive a year of
“education and practical training in health and nursing care,” Father Puleo
the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “They come from the
community, and they take ownership of this program.”

Because they are community
members, fluent in both the language and the culture of those they assist, the promotores
serve as critical links between the program’s clients and health care services.

“Having this here in the church
is more confidential, more calming, more convenient,” Carla, a parishioner,
said after the most recent health fair at St. Patrick’s April 2. “It’s very
necessary to have these services for the Spanish community.”

Prenatal care is key among those
services. In 2014, Father Puleo buried five infants who died because of a lack
of proper medical attention, and he was determined not to bury any more.

“When I started this program
here, I had to learn about pregnancy through scientific research, and I have a
better understanding of it now than most biological fathers do,” he said.

Throughout the summer of 2014,
he announced the program to his parishioners, and in October 2014, the first
screening session was held.

To implement the program in his
parish, Father Puleo coordinated with Mercy Sister Ann O’Connell and Jesuit
Father Peter Clark, director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics and a
professor of medical ethics at St. Joseph’s University.

Based on health care models he
observed in the Dominican Republic, Father Clark had already instituted similar
programs for the Nigerian and French-speaking West African communities at St.
Cyprian Parish in West Philadelphia.

His team partnered with nearby
Mercy Catholic Medical Center, and Sister O’Connell, a retired vice president
of mission for what is now Suburban Community Hospital in Norristown, suggested
extending the program to the Mexican community in central Montgomery County.

The program has already saved
lives. A stroke patient who came to the March clinic was referred immediately
to the hospital by a resident helping at the clinic. In another case an ambulance
was called to take a man whose eye was hemorrhaging to the hospital, said
Father Clark. “These men were both undocumented, so they’re not going to
run immediately to the emergency room. But a resident (physician) called ahead,
and he knew the residents in the ER, and they just took care of them.”

Any case requiring formal
medical treatment is referred to local practitioners and clinics, which often
charge on a sliding-scale basis.

“For those patients who do not
have insurance, we provide information and ask them to come into our office,”
said Dr. Patrice Ekperi, a practitioner at Suburban Community Hospital’s Family
Medicine Office. “We can provide treatment services there, and we do offer
uninsured rates, so that we can at least attend to those who do not have
insurance or who may be underinsured.”

“The hospitals in Philadelphia
have been very good,” Father Puleo added. “We pay something, but we try for
minimal payment. We rely on clinics. We use our connections.”

The list of agencies willing to
help with the program continues to grow. For instance, St. Patrick’s now offers
dental health education, thanks to volunteers from Montgomery County Community
College’s dental hygiene program.

Students from both the
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Institute of Clinical
Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University routinely staff the monthly clinic. A
Delaware Valley nonprofit organization, coordinates mammograms and pelvic exams
for women at area hospitals.

The Mexican consulate has joined
the monthly health fair to assist clients with immigration issues, legal
documentation and domestic violence concerns.

By ministering to the medical
needs of the underserved, the promotores program also serves as a means of

“We’re called to take care of
both the spiritual and physical needs of the person,” said Father Puleo. “They’re
not separate; they’re one.”

“We walk the talk,” added Sister
O’Connell. “It’s not just something preached, but it’s something lived.”

– – –

Christian writes for,
the news website of the Archdiocese
of Philadelphia.

– – –

Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article