Written by Su Jen Li, Shirley Chen
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
For a long time, physicians from Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) have held a monthly medical outreach event regularly in remote rural areas or impoverished communities, providing free medical services for the locals. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, the free medical services were forced to be suspended.
TIMA doctors were worried that many patients with chronic conditions that they were caring for would no longer be able to get their medication, and their health condition would worsen. Therefore, a team of Tzu Chi medical volunteers in California set in motion a mission to deliver the prescriptions themselves, through the mail or home visits.
Sending Medication by Mail
Tina Hsieh, a Spanish-speaking Tzu Chi volunteer, called Jose Castro, a regular Tzu Chi USA care recipient. Jose and his wife Micahelina Castro are both patients and old friends with the Tzu Chi volunteers who used to participate in Tzu Chi USA’s San Bernardino medical outreach events. In addition to learning about their health conditions, Tina’s call served another vital purpose: She asked Jose if he had time for a visit from one of Tzu Chi’s doctors.
Tzu Chi USA has held medical outreach events in San Bernardino, Bakersfield, and Orange County for a long time. However, Dr. Shirley Chen, a volunteer in charge of the Medical Development Department (MDD) at Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters, explained that Tzu Chi had suspended most medical outreach activities during the pandemic. At the same time, many clinics and hospitals stopped taking walk-ins to avoid infections. Consequently, the health of patients who need to take medicine daily became a concern.
When the pandemic broke out in March, physicians and volunteers from TIMA listed chronically ill patients from their medical records. Bilingual volunteers then assisted in calling them one by one to learn about their medical needs. Following up, the volunteers then sent them a three-month supply of their prescriptions by mail and instructed them to continue taking their medication to stabilize their health condition.
By mid-December 2020, Tzu Chi’s MDD volunteers had sent three medication packages to these patients, covering nine months’ worth of their prescriptions. Dr. Chen explained why this follow-up and medication delivery is critical:
Home Visits Complete Tzu Chi’s Medical Care During the Pandemic
However, the TIMA doctors who mailed the medicine to patients felt that it’s still not enough. Hence, Tzu Chi volunteers and doctors decided to visit them in person to understand their condition better. While they could have contacted them via a video call, such communications can’t determine a patient’s actual physical state, nor can they replace the interaction between people when they meet in person.
Dr. Chen and Tzu Chi volunteer Sylvia Wihardjo were worried about patients they knew in San Bernardino, one of the top poorest cities in the United States. Thus, they prepared medicine, gifts, and Tzu Chi USA Journals to give to the patients, then set off on December 13, driving nearly an hour from Tzu Chi USA’s headquarters in San Dimas, to reach two families in San Bernardino.
Arriving in town, many sights on the streets confirmed the ongoing struggles of the population here. Along the way, the team could see many homeless people wrapped in blankets; some were rummaging through trash cans for recyclables to sell for some change, while others rested on benches at bus stops. The need for continual aid is evident in San Bernardino, where Tzu Chi USA provides a range of care.
The first stop for the Tzu Chi team was Jose and Micahelina Castro’s house, where the couple were waiting for the volunteers on the sidewalk close to their home. Micahelina thanked them profusely, saying, “I received your call saying that you will send me medicine. I was so surprised and happy. We have no insurance. I don’t have money, and receiving these life-saving medicines is a miracle. I really don’t know what to say.”
Jose, who works in a recycling factory, is the only one providing for the family. However, he has long-term medical issues due to his weight and needs medication to control his condition.
Seeing that Dr. Chen had come, Jose immediately shared that he had accepted the suggestion to change his eating habits and became a vegetarian. He lost 45 pounds since then, rediscovering his physical abilities at a lighter bodyweight. His world has become very different, and he vows to continue to be vegetarian.
Micahelina can’t work due to waist and knee injuries from a car accident. In addition, she also has thyroid problems. When the pandemic stuck, she had only one week of medicine left. She was most anxious since the couple has two teenagers to take care of, so if their health problems got in the way, the consequences would be disastrous. Thankfully, this was not the case.
Their next stop was to visit Yadira Araba, who works in a local hotel’s laundry room and is raising her nine-year-old child as a single mother. As a result of the pandemic, the hotel reduced her working hours, so her income dropped sharply. After paying the rent and other fixed expenses, she now faces regular food shortages.
Yadira missed the services provided by Tzu Chi USA’s medical outreach events, especially when she doesn’t have insurance. And so, she was happy to see the volunteers, welcoming them to her home. She shared that the fruits and vegetables provided by Tzu Chi help her a lot, and the medication allows her to control her blood sugar and blood pressure.
As the volunteers left, they were most grateful for having met the needs of these San Bernardino residents that day, looking forward to the next time they’ll meet.
The needs of many have escalated during the pandemic, yet Tzu Chi volunteers have continually kept them close to heart, initiating new ways of providing care as necessary. Your support can keep missions such as this going and enable the creation of new programs.