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Value of prevention being explored in Lodi

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Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 10:00 pm

It's hardly news that health care is becoming less and less affordable and more people are one illness short of bankruptcy.

A local charity called Su Salud used to put on an annual health fair at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds to help those who weren't getting health care. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and other good-hearted "civilians" examined and attempted to treat thousands of farmworkers and other under-insured people who came from miles and miles around.

After 10 years, they had exhausted their money and their volunteers.

So founder Dr. Guillermo Vicuña and the Su Salud board turned to an old idea -- prevention.

Since 1997, they have done only basic screenings -- visual dental exams (no X-rays), checks of cholesterol and blood pressure -- plus vaccinations and health education. The idea was to promote healthy eating, exercise and, when necessary, early treatment. The effort used fewer volunteers and was much less expensive than the comprehensive health fairs.

They call it Tour of Life and their motto is simple: "To prevent is to cure, and prevention costs less."

But they were nagged by something basic: Can you teach people to change their habits and really make them more healthy?

If the answer turns out to be "yes," I think it could reduce the cost of medical care, not just for the poor but for everyone. The process of answering that question in a scientific way began Saturday at the Harney Lane migrant worker camp.

Under a cloudless sky, improvised dental chairs and registrations were scattered on the lawns between camp houses. Women who pick crops and their children were checked for cavities. Inside, they had their cholesterol and blood pressure checked, and watched videos about cooking with less fat and serving their families more fruits and vegetables. Gingerly they touched three-dimensional models to learn about breast self-examinations and being careful about sexually transmitted diseases.

They were enticed to the classes by raffle prizes -- bike helmets and child safety seats -- and afterwards a fiesta with ranchero music.

Over the next two years, the mothers who are part of the Tour of Life are scheduled to receive further education. The screenings and immunizations Saturday are to be followed by four two-hour classes. The screenings and immunization sessions will be done every six months and each of those will be followed by more health instruction.

Lodi dentist Jeff Huston, one of the volunteers, gave me a tour of the grounds and made sure I was introduced to Delia Cortez, a mother with her two sons. She has promised to follow the Tour of Life regimen for the next two years.

Health educator Becky Knodt holds a model of a human breast while explaining the importance of self examination for cancer. Listening, from left, are Rafaela Reyes, Alejandra Valtierra and Socorro Magall-n. (Marty Weybret/News-Sentinel)

During the winter, Cortez lives in Acuiteramo, Michoacán near Guadalajara, but ever since she was a baby, she has been coming to the Harney Lane camp. She, her parents and later her husband picked cherries, pears and grapes.

Recently, however, she has landed a service job in the camp's day care center. She completed a high school equivalency program given at the labor camp in French Camp and now she is studying childhood development at night classes through Delta Community College.

What did Cortez take away from the Tour of Life classes?

"It really opened my eyes," she said.

One of the youngsters had two cavities and the other had one. Since they are insured under the Healthy Families program, they can see a dentist.

As for herself, now that she has a desk job, she's learned "I need to get more exercise."

Even though the labor camp, located just west of an abandoned landfill, is not a pretty spot, the skies were blue and the mood was inspirational. The day breathed life into the founder of Su Salud.

"All of these volunteers gave up their Saturday to come out here, next to the dump," Vicuña said. "Look at the attitude."

Just as important was the attitude of the women, almost none of whom had health insurance.

"I've never seen people so willing to learn." They seemed to sense the sincerity of the volunteers but they took pride in the duty conferred on them to share their new knowledge with the family and friends. Very soon, each of the women will become a giver of healthy knowledge.

Of course, these are just stories -- anecdotal evidence as researchers would say.

What's new this year is the health services are being scientifically studied. Thanks to a grant from Colgate Palmolive and oversight by the University of Puerto Rico School of Dentistry, Tour of Life participants will be tracked to see if their health improves.

Su Salud aims to help farmworkers and uninsured workers in San Joaquin County, and is to be admired for its charitable service.

But I believe there is something equally important is going on with this research.

As an employer, it is discouraging to look at the mess we've made of our health care system in the U.S. Even those who have insurance or who rely on Medicare are slowly being strangled by decades of "super-inflation" of hospital bills, drugs and medical procedures. It squeezes workers paychecks and employers' profits.

The discouraging thing is no one is discussing attractive solutions.

There is some talk about "rationing health care" -- cutting back the number of procedures and drugs covered by insurance and Medicare. Some health plans are making it harder to see specialists.

These are not happy outcomes for anybody who is sick. And if you don't need a doctor, why are you being asked to pay more and more?

Dr. Vicuna and his band of do-gooders at Su Salud has hit on an idea that will help keep all of us out of hospitals, pharmacies and doctors' offices. Of course, we still need our regular exams and access to care when necessary. But so much expense and suffering can be avoided if we eat right and get out for a little exercise every day.

If the Su Salud families can do it, it stands to reason we all can.

Colgate is supplying the money for the study. Su Salud has raised enough for the first two Tours of Life. To pull off the next eight of them, Su Salud needs $100,000 in the next month or so.

Anyone who can spare a donation may send it to Su Salud, 6069 Huntingdale Cir., Stockton, CA 95219.

Maybe someday we'll read good news about the cost of health care.

Marty Weybret is the publisher of the News-Sentinel and may be reached at martw@lodinews.-com.



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