It was a cloudless summer day in 1999 in Bainbridge, a rural town in south Georgia best known for bass fishing. At the time, Erick Martínez Juárez was, he says now, “a gleamy-eyed brown kid with crooked teeth, wearing dirty chanclas [flip-flops].” He stood with his Mexican immigrant parents at the edge of a large field near the tomato farm where both his mother and father worked, and watched dozens of physician assistants, medical students, nurses, and interpreters—“all of whom were doctors to me, and I had never seen so many doctors in one place.” He saw them move among colorful canopied tents that would stay up until the wee hours.
It was a medical clinic set up through Emory University’s Farmworker Project, a biannual program that began in 1996. The program exists to give medical care to approximately 2,500 itinerant farmworkers a year in South Georgia, who tend the fruits and vegetables we eat. Many of the workers are immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, or Haiti. Every June and October, Emory students, faculty, clinicians, interpreters, and volunteers (about 350 total in the summer and 120 in the fall) travel to the area, setting up and taking down entire clinics twice a day as they move from farm to farm.
Juárez, who today is a second-year neurology resident at the University of California, Los Angeles, remembers those clinics as a turning point in his life—as they changed his sense of what life might offer. “These students had come to such a desolate part of the country to help the farmworkers. And I thought, maybe someday I, too, could be a doctor and help people.” By the time he was 16, he was volunteering as an interpreter for the program.
“The program is [partly] supported by fundraising that the students do themselves during the year,” says Jodie Guest, professor and senior vice chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Emory, and director of the program. The first time Guest attended, in 2005, “I was so proud that Emory was there, serving a community that is often invisible, but I was overwhelmed by the need. There are very high rates of diabetes, eye infections from sun and pesticide exposure, fungal foot infections because they can’t clean their socks often enough, a lot of back and shoulder complaints, and significant depression.”
The clinic offers everything from pregnancy tests to ultrasounds, antibiotics, and dental care. A van on site serves as a mobile pharmacy, providing the most commonly needed medications, and a large truck offers two private exam rooms, though most exams are done under tents. “This is the only care these farmworkers may have all year,” says Guest.
If the farmworkers benefit, the students do as well. As Mikhayla Kleich—who will graduate from Emory as a physician assistant this year—put it on her Instagram, “These incredibly thankful and kind people were the first patients I have ever taken care of on my own. I’m not going to lie, PA school is difficult, exhausting, and draining, but it’s opportunities like this that remind me why I fell in love with this profession in the first place.”
Meanwhile, that “gleamy-eyed brown kid” is now on the brink of becoming a full-fledged neurologist. Juárez hopes to come home to Georgia soon “as a doctor, and to volunteer for the farmworker program, so I can return the favor done for me so long ago.”
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.