A new physician is now seeing patients in the rural Chiapas region in Mexico. In January, Dr. Karla Sánchez became the third physician--and the first female clinician--with PIH's partner project in Mexico, which works in collaboration with the nonprofit El Equipo de Apoyo en Salud y Educación Comunitaria (EAPSEC)--the Team for the Support of Community Health and Education.
Karla’s presence is not only welcomed by the busy EAPSEC/PIH Mexico clinical team, but could also have an immeasurable positive impact in a region where so many girls do not attend or drop out of school, says PIH-Mexico coordinator Lindsay Palazuelos.
Karla recently sat down to discuss how and why she chose to work in Chiapas.
Having gone to medical school in Puebla--a large city in the center of Mexico--what made you come work in the Sierra Madre--a tropical, mountainous region in southern Chiapas?
I’m driven by a desire to provide medical services to people who need them, and one of the most satisfying ways for me to do this is by working in a rural area. Being here actually strengthens my convictions and gives me a different--and very positive--perception of life.
Ultimately I firmly adhere to the idea that all human beings have the right to health, regardless of distance or social class. In the end, I identify with all the people that form our society--all the people of Mexico--and I see a real need for justice in underserved places like Chiapas. This is especially true when discussing access to health care.
Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla--the medical school where you received your degree--is particularly interested in social justice. Is this what drew you to the Chiapas project?
I believe that things can change for the better, if each of us contributes, and if we as a society adhere to the idea of social justice. I want to be a part of positive change in places that need the noble art of medicine.
Even as a medical student I knew this was something I wanted to do. Before coming to EAPSEC/PIH I worked for a year with an NGO in rural Oaxaca--a region west of Chiapas. The experiences gained during that time very much influence how I think now. I strive to provide the best service possible to patients, to earn their trust, and to give my best to each person seeking medical attention.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the people of Chiapas?
For a long time we’ve known that the biggest challenge facing these communities is the large coffee and corn companies who have purchased the region’s fertile land, pushing the people into the mountains.
Almost all the people in Chiapas control and work their own land and then sell their crops to large buyers—these corporations—and are often at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices which rarely work in their favor... [These jobs] leave them as poor as they were before working for these companies.
Many of these people come back from work and try to farm small plots of land on the side of a mountain. The lack of [financial] resources to have domestic animals such as chickens, pigs, and horses leaves people without--without food [and] animals to help plough.
[Another problem is the isolation of Chiapas villages] To say that the road into these villages is dangerous to travel would be an understatement. Because of the region’s geography and the high levels of deforestation, the journey in and out of Chiapas is a very dangerous one. Not just that, it’s arduous. It takes about six hours to get to the closest city by car. And of course most people don’t own cars. This is a long-standing problem, and one that has led to disproportionate levels of illness and chronic disease in the region.
What role do you see yourself playing in breaking the cycle of poverty and disease in the Sierra Madre in Chiapas?
The people of Sierra Madre feel like they are forgotten by Mexico’s state-run health system. This is obviously the largest health problem facing the region’s communities.
I see myself as needing to do a number of things. First, I need to understand the way of life here. Doing that will allow me to better understand the causes of certain infectious diseases. Then I can contribute to an effective solution to dangerous trends in the region, as well as help develop preventative interventions.
I’m excited to improve the health of the inhabitants of Chiapas. There is a lot of reward in helping people here, and it justifies why I became a doctor.
Since 1989, PIH has worked with EAPSEC to deliver health care, access to education, employment, and social support to tens of thousands of people living in the isolated mountain communities of Chiapas – Mexico’s southernmost state.