In 2004, Helen Palomino was a successful program analyst for the Workforce Investment Board of Imperial County. Her background was in Business Administration and she worked closely with youth programs. However, Helen had always been fascinated by the nursing and medical fields through experiences with her family and decided to volunteer in the hospice setting while still working full time. It was during her volunteer experience that she came to the conclusion that she wanted to attend graduate school for social work.
Helen worked full-time and commuted two hours from her home in Imperial Valley to attend classes at SDSU’s main campus. She was making tremendous sacrifices of time, energy, and money to pursue her passion in the field. During her second year internship at UCSD Thornton Hospital she connected with Moore’s Cancer Center and witnessed cancer patients making the same commute from Imperial Valley to receive treatment in San Diego. Helen realized that while the commute was difficult for her, it was a tremendous burden and barrier to treatment for those living with cancer in Imperial Valley. She witnessed the pressing need for improved access to cancer care in Imperial Valley and felt that she was a person who could help fill this need.
After graduating she joined the Cancer Resource Center of the Desert as a medical social worker. The center serves a population comprised mostly of first generation Hispanic immigrants. Many have sacrificed a tremendous amount to live and work in the US but are often linguistically isolated and are not familiar with the medical systems in the US. Most do not have medical insurance and travel to Mexicali, Mexico to pay cash for routine medical treatment. However, once diagnosed with cancer they are burdened with the task of trying to find care in the US: a country that they are not fully connected with culturally or linguistically.
This is where Helen and her team at the Cancer Resource Center of the Desert step in. They provide resources, knowledge, and support that their clients would not have access to alone. Navigating the US/Mexico binational medical systems is incredibly complex and requires a strong voice for communicating the population’s needs. “When confronted with a barrier we use our expertise and network to make things move forward. We have to push the system to get the patient’s timely access to quality treatment. We fill the gaps.”
Each visit that a client makes to the center is a sacrifice for them. For many, leaving work for a single day is taking a risk that they may not have a job to return to the next day. Therefore, it is often crucial to meet their needs in a single visit. “It is humbling to see the courage, tenacity, and struggle to live; to witness their dignity and acknowledge them with dignity. It is so intimate and honorable. It’s a backstage pass to their life story.”
Going forward, Helen plans on finishing her LCSW hours, bridging the gaps to cancer care in her community, and remains committed to working with researchers from SDSU in raising awareness of Latino cancer health disparities.
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Written by: Paloma Pierce