rutgers immigration health kathy in classPHOTO: Kathleen Smith-Wenning uses body language to convey a health concept during a lesson to non-English speaking students in Mexico.  Photo: Courtesy Kathleen Smith-Wenning

Rutgers respiratory therapist spends her vacations in Mexico and along the U.S. border as a health educator – and brings her knowledge back to better treat underserved populations in the U.S. 

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Some people save their vacation days to travel to a tropical paradise. Kathleen Smith-Wenning accumulates them to teach underserved populations in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border how to improve their health.

Since 2006, Smith-Wenning, the director of clinical education for the Respiratory Care Program at Rutgers School of Health Related Professions, has been traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico, to volunteer with Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of Oaxaca City’s poorest children through education. The Highlands resident, who also has a master’s degree with a focus in medical anthropology, discovered the organization while seeking a service project that would immerse her anthropology students at Monmouth University into a community of indigenous people.

After that first trip with two students, she fell in love with the warmth and culture of the people who the organization served. She was subsequently invited to be on the board of directors and to provide medical oversight for the Arkansas-based organization. Even though she no longer brings students with her, she returns to Oaxaca annually to volunteer.

“Most of the children we serve work late into the night selling cigarettes and candy. They are profoundly poor by our standards: They live in homes with cement floors, corrugated walls and roofs, one light bulb and no running water. Their beds are floor mats,” says Smith-Wenning, who returned from her most recent trip on January 20. “But they have a different type of wealth: A strong, family-centered community.”

The course she teaches in Oaxaca, “English for Your Health,” covers topics such as bodily functions, how to read medicine labels and when to call a doctor. She also discusses common ailments – such as cold, flu, asthma, bronchitis, diabetes and hypertension – how to describe them to a health care professional and how they are treated.

But that’s not all she does. In August, while watching the news unfold about the crisis of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the U.S. border, she decided to take action. With only one week off for her summer vacation, she had limited time to make a meaningful impact. “I was drawn to help these people because as austere as the conditions in Oaxaca are, those children have an address,” she says. “The refugee children had no idea where they were and were alone.”

rutgers immigration health kathy smith wenningPHOTO:  Kathleen Smith-Wenning   Courtesy Rutgers University

Smith-Wenning contacted La Posada, a refugee shelter near the border in San Benito, Texas, and spent a week teaching residents the hands-only version of CPR as part of the shelter’s mandatory life skills classes.

Although Smith-Wenning describes her Spanish as “moderate to mediocre,” she is able to communicate with students by acting out concepts and with translation dictionaries. She found this strategy especially beneficial at La Posada, where students came from regions other than Central and South America.

The challenge of teaching health literacy is more than simply overcoming a language barrier. “Non-English speakers may not have a word for a common disease, such as asthma or diabetes,” she says. “And some of my students have relied upon herbal remedies and do not understand Western medicine.”

Smith-Wenning credits her volunteer experiences with helping her better understand the non-English speaking patients she encounters through the University Hospital, Rutgers School of Nursing Jordan and Harris Community Health Center and at the Rutgers FOCUS Wellness Center both in Newark.

“As a health care provider, I’m fortunate to have a firsthand look at the immigrant experience. I know the person I see sitting on the exam table has a history – often a harrowing one – of the road travelled to that facility,” she says. “Caring for recent immigrants is an issue not just at the border, but right in our own backyard.”

Over the past year alone, close to 3,000 unaccompanied minors were resettled in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. “These faces in the numbers are our patients – that we cannot forget,” Smith-Wenning says.