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Yolanda Villalvazo
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YOLANDA VILLALVAZO The medical student is passionate about bridging the gap between medicine and the underserved.

To understand what drives Yolanda Villalvazo, consider her arrival into the world.

Born two months too soon in Dinuba, Calif., she was urgently transferred to a Fresno hospital better equipped to handle premature children. Her mother, a Mexican farm worker who spoke little English, was confused and frightened when doctors wouldn’t allow her to hold her firstborn child.

Thirty-two years later, Villalvazo, a medical student in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, is devoted to helping migrant and seasonal farm workers in Iowa get access to compassionate health care. At the same time, she’s become an advocate for cultural sensitivity and a population often ignored.

“Growing up, we were farm workers, so I saw some of the issues my parents faced through the eyes of a child,” she says. “This population often does not have health insurance. They also face language barriers. It’s disturbing to think that someone who is really ill isn’t getting treated.”

During her first summer of medical school, Villalvazo volunteered with Proteus, Inc., an Iowa nonprofit that provides social services to immigrants and farm workers. Working with the organization’s Migrant Health Program, she saw an opportunity.

She turned to the UI Mobile Health Clinic, which delivers free medical screenings to the underserved through its student and physician volunteer team. The partnership allowed Proteus—which faced declining funding—to serve more people through evening health clinics at migrant worker camps in Williamsburg, Iowa. Students, meanwhile, got experience working with a population with unique health care needs.

Proteus estimates that up to 2,000 migrant farm workers travel to Iowa between February and October from southwestern states and Mexico. The workers labor long hours in the heat, facing exhaustion and occupational injuries including exposure to farm chemicals. Their ailments often go untreated because many lack insurance.

As she got to know patients in the migrant camps, Villalvazo learned that many of the women were not getting annual exams, so she helped organize women’s health education sessions during the clinic. The sessions covered various topics, including the importance of cervical exams and mammograms.

But Villalvazo went a step further, arranging for women to visit a free clinic in Iowa City for the exams. Later, when the clinic lost its funding, Villalvazo contacted the Emma Goldman Clinic to help.

“I like the challenge of finding the resources around you, and bringing them together to get things done,” Villalvazo says.

When a patient needed dental work, for example, she worked with the College of Dentistry to arrange the care. When she suspected abuse, she contacted the Johnson County Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

“She’s very much a self-starter and a go-getter,” says Penny Rembolt, a financial aid counselor in the College of Medicine and an advisor for the UI Mobile Health Clinic. “Wherever she sees a need for health care—whether it’s in Iowa’s Latino population or in Africa—she wants to do whatever she can to help.”

At a young age, Villalvazo recognized that medical science and Latino farm workers were disjointed. That’s why she sought out the population when she came to Iowa for medical school, she says.

“I’m giving back to the people I know,” she says. “Work is not really the word for it. When you do something you love, it’s not work.”

Her childhood experiences have permeated her patient care philosophy. Villalvazo, who is bilingual and often served as translator when her parents visited the doctor, says she always remembers to listen to her patients. She treats them as she would a family member. 

The future is unknown for Villalvazo, who is earning a joint master’s degree in public health. She has interned with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and gone to Cuba, Kenya, and Guatemala for medical projects. She says whatever she does after medical school, will serve an underserved and diverse population.

“All medical students probably think they can save the world,” she says. “I realize now that if you can help a small group of people—even if you’ve helped one woman find a lump and get treatment—this is what matters most, what keeps me going.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Sept. 24, 2007