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Healing Art at Hospital de la Familia

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 -- By Adair Margo

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A few blocks from downtown El Paso on the Mexican side of the Stanton Street Bridge is an attractive three-story building at the corner of Calle Ingeniero Manual Cardona and Avenida Malecon. Its modern façade faces north, its blue neon letters read Hospital de La Familia. When visitors walk in the front glass doors, they’re immediately struck by how busy it is – filled with Mexican families, most of them extremely poor since the hospital was built for them. Yet the interior is so beautiful, the quality of care so excellent, the doctors and nurses so professional that middle class families have also come. The last time I walked through its gleaming cafeteria and past its pharmacy, a smiling woman recognized my face and asked if I were from El Paso. “I am, too,” she said, “though I come to this side for my health. I told my husband to come here, too, and he likes the way they treat him.” That day she was there with her sister from Denver who found the help she’d been seeking. “I like it here,” the sister said. “They listen to me and know me by name.”

The Hospital de la Familia is a 110 bed teaching hospital that serves over 200,000 people, providing more than 400,000 medical services a year. It is the fourth largest hospital in Juarez – accredited by the Secretaria de Salud de Mexico – and runs the largest, nationally recognized nursing school in the State of Chihuahua. Its achievements are extraordinary, but its beginnings forty years ago were as small as a mustard seed in an environment that seemed hopeless.

That’s when Guadalupe de la Vega, a beautiful woman with a forceful spirit, read the headline in a Juarez newspaper Human Hyena Kills Child. Shocked that a mother would kill her unborn baby and seeking answers for such a horrible act, Lupe went to the Juarez jail where a poor, illiterate and malnourished woman was in a cell. With eyes lowered and in an almost inaudible whisper she shared her story. She had been left alone with nine children in a one room shack built of wooden pallets. Her husband had left, looking for work in the United States. Yes she had taken a knife and plunged it into her pregnant belly. With crying, hungry children and no food to give them, she despaired of bringing another child into a miserable world.

Lupe’s question about family planning met sad and suffering eyes. The woman lived in a world of poverty and fear, with no access to information or care. The Mexican Federation of Health and Economic Development Associations (FEMAP)– was born that day, bringing to life a movement of providing health, economic development and education to the poorest of the poor. Based on a model of Promotoras de Salud – poor women providing health information out of their own tiny homes in the farthest reaches of Cd. Juarez – FEMAP grew beyond child and maternal health to include micro-lending; environmental health; educational programs for youth; and social entrepreneurship.

It’s first building was a small clinic in the same location the Hospital de la Familia stands today. In had two beds in 1973, growing to four in 1976 and 110 in 2012. At every step, the poor paid a little and others sources of earned income were found. Today the hospital is fully sustainable with laboratories, imaging services, health promotion programs in the maquiladoras, and pharmacies generating revenue to subsidize programs incapable of making money.

The Hospital de la Familia is filled with beautiful art loved by the patients. A mural by Nezahualcoyotl Lozano fills a large wall in the cafeteria communicating the wonder of life. A strong indigenous woman sits at the center giving birth, her head tilted upwards towards the light, her legs rising like mountains, her large hands open to welcome her child. The male stands reverently behind her, his arms extended in a gesture of protection. The trinity of man, woman and child are surrounded by sperm, ovum, and fetus – communicating the union of man and woman to create life. Technology is present in Lozano’s mural, though not primary – represented by a test tube and beaker, its use is in the service of mankind and not at the expense of it.

Life giving messages are communicated throughout the Hospital de la Familia. Hark the Herald Angels, a painting by El Pasoan Manuel Acosta, greets abuelitos and abuelitas, tios and tias coming to see their own babies in the neonatal unit, reminding them of another birth long ago that changed the entire world. Though the upper corners of the painting are dark, the darkness is not allowed to encroach on the mother and child. Angels in royal blue dresses – like enveloping wings – shelter them in loving light.

At the entrance to the Hospital de la Familia is a bronze sculpture by Lupe de la Vega’s daughter-in-law, Angela. Called The Triumph of Life, the work of art depicts a young girl laughing, standing on her tip-toes – her long hair blown by the wind, her arms spread wide as if taking flight. One morning when seeing a little girl standing silently in front of the sculpture, Lupe bent down and said to her, “Do you know you can be like that? God sent you – and if you listen to your mother, study and work hard, you can be like her!” The little girl looked at Lupe’s face, took her mother’s hand and walked away. After a planning meeting upstairs to expand the hospital and nursing school in the coming years, Lupe was leaving the building when she felt a tug on her dress. There was the same little girl who looked up at her and, pointing to the sculpture, said, “Señora, I am going to be just like that!”