Two decades ago, the Spanish Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró witnessed the killing, torture and oppression of Salvadorans in the country’s decade-long civil war. A respected psychologist, he urged doctors to consider the social conditions of their patients.
Then, in 1989, a Salvadoran military patrol broke into the priest’s residence and gunned down six Jesuits, including Martín-Baró, his housekeeper and her daughter.
But within the walls of a converted Mission District convent, the philosophy of the priest lives on. Run entirely on donated supplies and services, Clinica Martín-Baró—a collaboration between San Francisco State University and UC San Francisco’s medical school—opens its doors every Saturday to treat the medical and social maladies of a new generation of Latinos.
“You can do a medical diagnosis,” said Felix Kury, a San Francisco State professor and the clinic’s faculty advisor. “But what we’re also trying to make the medical students and the other volunteers here is to be aware of what are the social conditions.”
Those include traumatic journeys to the United States and lives in which patients have never seen a doctor and are now trying to navigate life without English language skills, insurance, or family.
“Many of the patients here are undocumented and have traveled quite far to get here,” said Dr. Rene Salazar, the attending physician, on a recent Saturday. “Just the virtue of where they’re from and the journey they’ve taken can be quite stressful.”
One of the four patients Salazar consulted that morning had crossed the Mexican border three weeks earlier by walking through the desert. He came into the free clinic, hosted in the offices of the Central American Resource Center on Alabama near 24th Street, complaining of a dry throat and phlegm. He also showed symptoms of posttraumatic stress, Salazar said.
“Just imagine,” said Kury, a psychotherapist, “walking with other people, and in the process, some people don’t make it, and there are other people who died, and being unable to do anything for them.”
Many, he said, have no one to talk to about the trauma.
After being treated by Dr. Salazar, the patient who had recently immigrated was sent upstairs for a counseling session with Kury.
Clinic staff added counseling when it became clear that many patients suffered from psychological issues. Salazar lists diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease as other common afflictions. “And we see a lot of work-related injuries,” he added. “Muscle strain, back strain, things like that, because of the type of work that many of our patients do.”
Clinica Martín-Baró opened almost two years ago. The idea of treating medical as well as psychological and social maladies affecting Latino immigrants grew out of a class Kury teaches about Latino health issues.
“A lot of these patients could be our family members,” said 28-year-old Patricia Avelar, a San Francisco State student who was working there on Saturday.
Avelar is one of about three dozen students from SF State and UCSF who volunteer to manage the clinic. It is funded by anything from bake sales to small donations left by patients, Avelar said.
While gratifying, treating a marginalized community can be tough, Avelar explained. “For a lot of reasons it’s hard for them to follow up with their medications.” Many patients lack a phone number and even an address. And for those who only speak a Mayan language, Avelar said, “we manage our way through it.”
Lucy Ramos, a 22-year-old volunteer coordinator, said that when people find out she has to get up at 6 a.m. to get to the clinic, they feel badly for her. “Yeah, I’m tired,” she said, “but I love doing this.”