- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Silvia Portillo, health coordinator for the Healthy Community Project, who recently received the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award for expanding health care to the Latino community in Alexandria.

Question: Mrs. Portillo, you have given quite a voice to Alexandria’s Hispanic community. What did you encounter that caused you to become such an advocate?

Answer: I had a lot of problems when I took my 2-year-old son to the Alexandria Clinic in1996. He had a fever, and I wanted to know what to do. Staff at the Alexandria Clinic referred me to another clinic near Alexandria Hospital off Seminary Road. When I called the clinic and explained that my child had a fever and I wanted them to tell me what to do, I was told, “We don’t know.” And they hung the phone up on me. I was very sad — all I needed was some information to help my child.

In any event, I went to the Casey Clinic, [a facility that is a part of the public health system in Alexandria], but the doctors there did not speak Spanish and did not give my child any medical treatment. They said it might be a 24-hour flu. But my son remained sick for another two to three days, and he constantly touched his ear. I had Medicaid at the time and so I took him to a private doctor in Alexandria, where he was diagnosed with an ear infection.

Then, I got sick — my stomach was upset — so, I went to the emergency room at Alexandria Hospital. None of the staff spoke Spanish. I was given a prescription and told to go home. The next day, during the early morning hours, I began to vomit, and I returned to the emergency room at Alexandria Hospital. I told the doctor about the pain in my ear and I put my finger on my ear. [After examining me], the doctor said there was severe damage to my eardrum.

So many Spanish-speaking people experience the same problems communicating with medical personnel. Today, the Alexandria Hospital has two bilingual staffers in its emergency room and there are three to four bilingual staffers in the financial office. The hospital’s 24-hour telephone system is now bilingual.

Q: What did you do to help others in the Alexandria/Arlandria Hispanic community?

A: In 1997, another person and myself started volunteering at the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee. We visited homes every day in the community and asked Spanish-speaking residents to describe some of the problems they had experienced accessing health care. We were able to gain the support of Dr. Glenn Pransky at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester and we conducted an occupational health survey. We interviewed 400 Spanish-speaking persons and found that 80 percent did not have health insurance and did not have access to the local health clinics in Alexandria. Sixty percent said they had problems with their jobs due to their inability to communicate and they simply lacked money to go to the doctor.

We also learned that 80 Hispanics living in Alexandria had medical debt with the Alexandria Hospital. For example, one lady required surgery that cost $34,000. She received calls asking when payment would be made. Although, she worked, she did not have the money to pay for her surgery. We introduced the lady to someone in the financial department of Inova Alexandria who reviewed her financial situation. Her income was very low and she qualified for 100 percent removal of the debt.

Q: What specific health issues are of greatest concern to your community?

A: Well, for example, many people have diabetes and suffer from high blood pressure. A lot of people know they have high blood pressure, but they don’t know where to go to get medical treatment. They will say, “I have headaches, but I don’t know where to go.” The problem they say is they live in this area and rent is the priority as opposed to going to the doctor.

Cardiovascular disease and breast cancer also are prevalent in our community. People also complain of having back problems due to their jobs. So, we host a health fair every year by partnering with different organizations and we’re able to provide free screenings. This year the health fair will be held on Saturday, September 13, at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center, 25 West Reed Avenue in Alexandria from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Q: How are you helping your community access health care?

A: The Healthy Community Project is working with the different medical organizations in Alexandria. For example, Tenants’ got in touch with the George Washington University Hospital and now the hospital provides 17 mammograms for women once a year. And, I have recruited two District-based organizations, Nueva Vida and Celebremos la Vida — these two programs focus on cancer prevention. We’re also working closely with the American Cancer Society and with the Whitman Walker Clinic to educate the Hispanic community about HIV/AIDS.

We have doctors who provide free checkups every month at our Alexandria offices from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Next month the clinic will be open on Saturday, July 19. Additionally, we organize a variety of activities that center on education, self-esteem, political and cultural celebrations.

Q:What are the goals of the Healthy Community Project?

A: We want to improve access to health care in the local area. In Alexandria/Arlandria there’s a population of 10,000 and 70 percent is Hispanic.

Q: You’ve just been awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award. What will this mean for you?

A: It’s great — it’s great for me. I’m an immigrant and an Hispanic. I’m very honored to have received this award. I was totally surprised when I learned of my nomination. You know, we need the money to continue to work in this area. I work alone and we need another full-time staffer to work alongside me. More than $100,000 of this money will go toward the health project and training. I plan to take English classes because I want to learn more so that I can better help my people.

Q: How can people get additional information about the Healthy Community Project and its services?

A: They should visit us at our office or call and make an appointment to come in and talk with me. We need to continue working on this important health care access issue. We need more access and improved access to health care.

To contact Community Forum, call 202/636-3210 or e-mail dbarnes@washingtontimes.com.

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