How one man’s trip to the doctor changed a community

When Molly Wolfes met Angel Martinez for the first time, she had no idea what a crucial role he would end up playing in his community. He walked into Puente one day in January with his brother-in-law, who had a toothache. He’d heard Puente could help with with that.

The front desk directed both men to Wolfes, Puente’s Community Health Coordinator, who made arrangements for the brother-in-law to be put on a list for a dental program serving farmworkers. She gave them a tour of Puente’s county-funded health clinic and the rest of the Puente facilities while she asked about the men: she’d never seen them before. She found out that they were viticulture workers living and working for a winery high in the hills surrounding La Honda, some 45 minutes away from Pescadero.

Angel Martinez stayed quiet during the tour. He asked about how to get signed up for free county health care, and Wolfes told him all he needed to bring in was his ID, proof of residence in the county and a recent pay stub. But she wasn’t sure if she would see him again.

“Angel showed up two weeks later. He brought two guys with him and he said, ‘I need health insurance, and so do they,’” she recalls. They all had  the necessary documents needed to apply. Wolfes signed them up on the spot. Usually an appointment is required, but because they had taken time off work and traveled so far she did not want to send them away.

And that was just the beginning. After enrolling in health insurance that same day, Angel signed up for his new patient physical a couple weeks later. The date was January 17 — he can still remember it. Incredibly, the brawny 43-year-old had never had a real health problem or needed to see a doctor that he knew of. Following the normal procedure of the clinic for a new patient, he got all his blood tests, and quickly followed up with checkups at the dentist and the eye doctor.

Martinez quickly became a great resource for Wolfes and his fellow companions and colleagues. He volunteered to be the main cell phone contact between Puente and the men he works with, helping them stay in touch with the medical clinic and making sure his co-workers got their medications on time. Using his own car, he also drove the men to medical appointments and pharmacies to pick up their prescriptions when needed.

“I told the guys I work with, this is a really good opportunity. You don’t always know what’s going on with your body. I told them, and a couple others have come to sign up,” says Martinez.

But why would a healthy man like Martinez expend such an effort, Wolfes wondered?

“There’s some sort of motivational spark in him… He’s one those people that I know I can count on. He’s always very responsive, and that’s hard for a lot of people here with long working hours and limited cell phone service,” says Wolfes. “It surprised me that he was motivated for other people too, helping them get their health insurance.”

Martinez smiles, exposing even white teeth as strong as his grip. “In all the time I’ve been in the U.S., I’ve never had health insurance. Not in Mexico either.” He’d never understood how it worked. It was just something other people had. All those debates about Obamacare were just noise to him. And anyway, why worry about a checkup when there was nothing wrong?

His perspective changed when he lost three older brothers in quick succession at the ages of 46, 52 and 53. They died of terrible diseases: liver cancer, pancreatic cancer and advanced diabetes.

Martinez was from a family of 10. Now there’s only 7.

“They had never seen a doctor in their lives. They only visited a doctor once they got sick,” he says. “It might have helped if they had seen a doctor sooner. Maybe something could have been prevented.”

Martinez came to the U.S. at 17 and found work as a cook in a Texas restaurant. He took high school classes on the side. That job lasted 20 years, after which he moved to Oregon to work in viticulture. He has been on the South Coast for two years and he has a wife and child in Mexico, whom he supports with a monthly remittance.

Martinez says that in Mexico, a simple doctor’s visit typically costs $150 (in U.S. dollars). Medications can cost twice as much. For someone coming from a rural town like his, a doctor’s visit can break the bank in travel expenses alone. And although Mexico has a “Seguro Social” that provides every worker access to health services, Martinez says that the reality is that when a patient has a life-threatening illness, the whole family bears the burden of scraping together the money to pay for treatment.

There’s a lot of reasons for someone to avoid the doctor’s office unless it becomes imperative. So it gives Martinez a lot of pride to be able to pay for his wife and child to see a doctor whenever they need to.

When Martinez heard he was entitled to free medical treatment through the San Mateo County ACE Program, he didn’t hesitate. He takes a medication now to address his high blood pressure, which is also free. Martinez also has new glasses — black frames that he wears when he works.

But he hasn’t stopped there. He’s eating differently now than used to. And he’s making sure that when it’s his turn to cook dinner for the men he lives with, he includes a lot of vegetables. “Squash, carrots, potatoes, celery, onions, garlic,” he says. “Things that have vitamins. That will help us stay healthier.”

A lot of the guys didn’t like it at first, he admits with a smile. “They like to eat a lot of red meat. They like to drink soda.”

“I used to be a cook,” Martinez adds. “It’s not only sugar that’s bad for you, it’s the stuff they give animals to make them grow faster. There’s a lot of things in the world that are changing. Before, there weren’t so many illnesses. We have to pay more attention to what we eat and drink.”

Wolfes wonders about asking Martinez to join Puente’s team of promotoras, who help educate isolated local residents about their health and connect them with some form of insurance. Puente is in the process of hiring 3 promotoras to join its existing team and is still looking for two more. The promotoras have already reached out to 660 people in the community since August 2015.

“I think Angel has that natural leader in him. Other people tend to follow him and he’s taken on that responsibility to help others take care of their health. And now, knowing his story, the motivation to do so makes more sense,” Wolfes says.

Martinez says he’ll continue to advocate for his colleagues to visit the doctor. Some of the men he lives with now, he says, “are young. They think nothing will ever happen to them.”

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