The key to physical and mental health well-being among Latino immigrants in Fort Wayne

This story was produced by El Mexicano News. It was originally published in their February 2024 edition. This article is available in Spanish on their website.

Catholic Charities: When Isolation Controls

Catholic Charities, 915 South Clinton St., Fort Wayne, IN 46802

According to Catholic Charities, between its immigration and refugee services, approximately 25,000 immigrants currently reside in Allen County, representing almost 80 percent of the population growth for the period between 2015 and 2019. In that time, the immigration population increased by 12.6 percent, with over 3,000 new immigrants arriving to the county.

The majority of the individuals that Catholic Charities works with have been residents in the community for many years. The nonprofit’s primary goal is “to help them to expand their legal and social access to the community by helping them in accessing any pathways to legal status that may be available to them,” says Immigration Director/DOJ-Full Accredited Representative Luz Ostrognai. 

Luz Ostrognai, Immigration Director at Catholic CharitiesBecause of their role in working with immigrants, the nonprofit’s understanding of the challenges facing new residents is thorough, by witnessing their personal lives and struggles. “We recognize consistent patterns throughout the population that we believe directly impact mental and physical health,” Ostrognai says.

The first and obvious challenge is access to health care coverage, according to Ostrognai, as immigrants aren’t able to access health insurance through their employers and are not eligible for state insurance like Medicaid and Medicare. “As a result, they often don’t receive the medical care they need unless it’s an emergency, in regard to both physical and mental health care.”

Ostrognai also outlined the mental health challenges that inhibit immigrants, stemming from family separation and feelings of social isolation. “It is extremely common for immigrants to be separated from their close family and friends for years and even decades,” she says. “It’s heartwarming to see the immediate positive impacts on the mental health of our clients when they are able to reunite with their spouses, children, parents, and siblings as a result of the services we provide.”

The journey itself is plagued with trauma, especially for individuals who traveled as small children with terrified parents. “The trauma of such uncertainty and danger is likely to impact long-term health for anyone subject to it,” Ostrognai says.

Upon arrival, immigrants have to adjust to new cultures and are asked to navigate language barriers that automatically place them in isolating status quos. But for the undocumented, the anxiety deepens as fears of deportation and arrest wreak havoc. “Additionally, isolation often extends to avoiding resources intended to help with mental health crisis, leading to a cycle of growing and unaddressed health problems,” she says.

“In populations facing severe threats to their basic survival, mental health issues are often buried under the struggle to have the basic needs of their families met,” Ostrognai says. Catholic Charities is the steppingstone in the process of providing stability, leading to expanded economic opportunities, and, in some cases, family reunification that will allow immigrants to “focus on the mental and emotional health of themselves and their children and to take advantage and benefit from community resources available to them.”

Alliance Health Centers: When Records Are Lost

Alliance Health Center (Inside the Rescue Mission), 404 E. Washington Blvd., Fort Wayne, IN 46802 or (Inside the Lafayette Medical Center), 2700 S. Lafayette St.,| Suite 110, Fort Wayne, IN 46806

“The best representation you can have is word of mouth,” says Lidia Colin Hernandez, medical assistant at Alliance Health Centers. 

Alliance Health Centers is located at 2700 Lafayette St., #110, inside the Lafayette Medical Center in Southeast Fort WayneA lot of the people who come to Alliance are immigrants who’ve recently come to the United States. And within the past year, Colin Hernandez started seeing an influx of immigrant patients surprisingly, she said, from Venezuela and Colombia. The wave is the most she’s seen from Central and South America in her two years. “We speak their language, providing accessible care that is equitable for them,” Colin Hernandez says. “It’s beautiful to see them bring their culture to us.”

According to Colin Hernandez, these are immigrants who are coming without medical records and possibly without having seen a doctor for years. Alliance works with Amani Family Services as a trusted partner in those (and other) instances. What exaggerates the problem is that the medical records are, at times, taken from individuals at the border by immigration officers. 

At times, Alliance needs to break down information “to a grade school level,” for patients and there are times when the immigrants are themselves medical professionals. It’s a case-by-case basis, but cultural mores persist. “It’s very mistakenly in the Hispanic culture that every time you think you’re going to get an antibiotic, and that’s simply not the case,” Colin Hernandez says.

Alliance Health Centers offers primary care, behavioral care, and OB-GYN services.Fear is the prevailing motivator. “As far as the Hispanic community goes, it's really about closing the gap of their care, a lot of people are shy about coming to the hospital…they get really scared,” says Alliance Registered Nurse and Clinical Coordinator Veronica Vazquez. “My dad is not one to come to the hospital.” They are afraid of hearing bad news: A common opinion echoed by her father is that hospitals are a place where people come to die. “But once they get to know us and when they see it’s someone that’s just like me, it’s personable, closing the care gap is easier.”

Patients at Alliance are asked about their mental health, after a regular check-up, in the form of two questions that focus on the loss of interest in loved activities and feelings of depression. “Those two questions are the beginning of seeing what’s wrong,” says Vazquez. “Men don’t talk about these things; women are a little more open.” But the registered nurse has seen a transition; under these conditions, men are opening up and children are discussing their feelings.

Alliance does offer psychologist and therapist services at its original location, at Pontiac and Lafayette, and can go virtual at both locations, including its new location inside the Rescue Mission in downtown Fort Wayne.

Super Shot: When Numbers Don’t Lie

Super Shot, 1515 Hobson Rd., Fort Wayne, IN 46805

For 30 years, Fort Wayne’s own Super Shot has worked to break down the barriers of access and affordability of immunization. It recently renovated its 1515 Hobson Rd. clinic with new examination rooms and a family sensory room for children with autism and different disabilities to decompress. 

Even though Super Shot is located close to a bus stop, transportation is always an issue. Some insurance policies navigate the process by paying for transportation.

Out of its 40 patients seen per day, Vaccinator Jimena Arenivar estimates that five are immigrants, hailing from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, who are often “starting from zero” when it comes to receiving their shots. 

“They left their records in the desert, and that hits different,” she says. Arenivar is one of Super Shot’s multi-hyphenates: She wears so many hats, including translating. “They come and say Spanish; I see their faces of relief…we’re doing something right.” 

When the needs swell beyond speaking Spanish, Super Shot, like a lot of other health agencies, uses translation services. In July of 2023 alone, Super Shot used its translation services 150 times in 14 different languages. The live translators can manage over 120 languages in over 60 seconds. Super Shot employees speak Spanish, Burmese, and, of course, English.

Before technology, Super Shot used Google Translate, to varying degrees of success. Before that, “It was really complicated,” says Executive Director Connie Heflin. The children of immigrants were put in a tough position to translate for families. “Obviously, healthcare translation shouldn’t be the burden of a child.” 

If records are lost in the desert for Super Shot’s clients, the nonprofit recreates the structure of record keeping by providing booklets for families that will document every shot.

Numbers don’t lie, especially when it comes to patients receiving immunization care through Super Shot. It travels to over 120 schools each year. According to 2022 numbers, 11,000 individuals received shots in its clinic and 10,500 received shots through the nonprofit’s outreach efforts at apartment complexes, churches, schools, etc. Super Shot partners include Brightpoint, Allen County Public Library, and churches both big and small. 

“We really feel that breaking down the barriers of trust and hesitancy is the key to that is working with trusted partners in the community,” Heflin says. “We want to be that trusted partner that other community leaders can ask to come to their locations. We hope that we’re one small part of welcoming immigrants to our community and that they feel welcome.”

This story was produced by El Mexicano News, a Fort Wayne-based news publication sharing local and national news in Spanish. It was originally published in their February 2024 edition. To read this article in Spanish, please visit their website.

The republication of this article is in part thanks to a collaborative effort to provide more local coverage of public health matters through support from the Knight Foundation.
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