Emory PA Program Marks 20 Years of Treating Farmworkers

On September 23, a celebration was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project (SGFHP). The SGFHP, which provides free health care to migrant farmworkers, began in 1996 from the trunk of the car of its founder, Tom Himelick, then a faculty member in the Emory PA program. That’s when Himelick and four of his students who shared an interest in the migrant farmworker community first set off for South Georgia.

Credit: Peter Winkel Photography

Maha Lund (left) and Tom Himerick (right). Credit: Peter Winkel Photography

Now celebrating its 20th year, the SGFHP encompasses a multi-disciplinary team of nearly 200 students, clinicians, interpreters, and logistics volunteers each summer. Since its inception, volunteers have provided free basic health care to more than 26,000 patients. The project has received local, regional, and national recognition for its innovative, culturally appropriate delivery of health care.

Each June, project volunteers spend two full weeks in the South Georgia communities of Bainbridge and Valdosta, and return to Bainbridge again over one fall weekend. These communities are home to the largest migrant farmworker populations in Georgia. Seventy-five to 80% of patients have not seen a health care provider in the past year, and many have never received health care. Most patients are Latino, primarily from Mexico, but others come from Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.

Volunteers, faculty, and students caravan to distant sites to set up clinics held in locations convenient for workers. The morning clinic travels to farms and field-side areas to provide care prior to pickers going into the fields, while evening clinics are held at housing camps, packing sheds, country stores, and churches. Most clinic areas are outdoors, austere, and require ingenuity. Camp chairs are used to set up exam space in vegetable fields, packing plants, and parking lots. While patients present with a wide variety of symptoms, most are related to the physically demanding, repetitive work they do day after day in challenging environments.

A few memorable patients:

  • An 80-year old woman who had worked over 40 years in the South Georgia fields and was proud that she was still able to work. She presented because her “knees hurt a little bit.”
  • A 14-year old boy who dislocated his toe playing soccer after picking tomatoes all day. He was crying because he was unable to walk and was uncertain how he would ever get back home without earning an income.
  • A man diagnosed with an acute myocardial infarction, who explained that he didn’t want to go to the local emergency department because, if he didn’t work, his family wouldn’t eat.
  • A farmworker with a blood sugar level of 48 because he gave all the food he could afford to his children.
  • A young man with sepsis from a leg injury whose foreman did not want him to go to the hospital for IV antibiotics because it would be difficult to make the harvest quota without him.

This community-supported program has grown into an advanced logistical exercise with teaching implications on a scale not fathomed in 1996. Over 90% of Emory PA students choose to participate in the project. They are joined by students from the Mercer University PA program as well as the Emory University School of Medicine and the physical therapy programs. Students from local nursing and family and marriage counseling programs complete the interdisciplinary team. Since 2012, teenagers from Teen Corp, an organization founded by Jodie Guest, PhD, MPH, have also joined the project and are paired with an Emory PA student mentor.

The 100% volunteer faculty also includes members of the Emory and Mercer PA programs and the Emory School of Medicine. Dental services are provided by dentists from the local communities.

Through fundraising and donations the project is able to provide free medications in the Emory dispensary as well as clothing and food. Medical interpreters are available for both Spanish and Haitian Creole. Faculty have commented on the impactful teaching time that goes beyond specific patient diagnoses and treatment — to the very core of service and humanity.

During the celebration event, Emory PA Program Director Maha Lund, DHSc, PA-C, honored SGFHP Founder Himelick with the Founders Award. She thanked him for his vision, compassion, and teaching and said, “The drop of inspiration you shared in 1996 has had a ripple effect beyond what anyone would have imagined. Your legacy continues to serve many and inspire us all.”

Credit: Peter Winkel Photography

Mr. Herrera with Emory PA student. Credit: Peter Winkel Photography

The evening program also featured U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. He described the SGFHP, students, and faculty as “humbling and important,” and spoke of his time growing up in California as the son of migrant farmworkers, a fact he believes strongly shaped much of his work. Herrera told the crowd, “You meet the people you serve at a difficult time, providing amazing lifesaving services and information. These are things we do not get in our communities. You not only bring health, well-being, and happiness, but you also bring us unity.”

Jodie Guest, PhD, MPH, contributed to this article.