WORTHINGTON, Minn. – The immigrant mother limped into the basement of St. Mary’s Church, where a doctor was waiting.
She’d walked her feet bloody trying to reach America.
Through the pain, she tried to focus on the little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, who was zooming in delighted circles around her and the man who came limping downstairs to join her.
Mamá! Papá! the little girl called out, hugging their legs.
“She hadn’t seen her parents in a year or so. They had just crossed the border and they had just arrived in Worthington,” said Dr. David Plevak, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist who made the long drive here at the request of an old friend, the Rev. Jim Callahan, St. Mary’s pastor, who was worried about the health of the undocumented and uninsured families of his parish.
Draining the blood blisters under the mother’s toenails was an easy fix for Plevak, who has a background in emergency medicine. As the pain eased, the relieved woman scooped up her child and “was able to participate in the joy of the arrival,” he said.
“It was almost like Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, the child in the arms, arriving from the journey,” said Plevak, who is also a Catholic deacon. “For me, it was just a total affirmation that this was the right thing to do.”
Worthington is a bustling southern Minnesota town with a big packing plant that draws workers from around the globe.
On his first few visits, Plevak brought a few basic medical supplies: a stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff, a glucose meter.
What he found waiting for him was a public health crisis. People with uncontrolled hypertension, stress and depression. Diabetics with limbs turning black. People who were terrified that they would be deported if they asked for help.
Callahan — Father Jim, everyone calls him — had watched helplessly as a young parishioner in her 20s withered away from untreated cervical cancer. In the end, she returned to Guatemala to die, and Father Jim gave his friend Plevak a call.
Seven years later, checkups in the church basement have become Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, a foundation that draws doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, nutritionists, counselors and interpreters from at least three medical systems in Minnesota and beyond. The clinic — which runs on donations, goodwill and an administrative staff of two — offers free health care to about 1,500 people each year.
“It’s uplifting. People have just responded with their hearts,” said Callahan, walking through the clinic’s downtown storefront on Wednesday. Tots toddled up and down the hallway, grabbing crackers off a snack table. An old man with a cast on his leg called out a greeting to the priest.
The doctors come to town every few months, hosting a Saturday clinic in a local chiropractic office that can draw 100 patients or more. They come from Minneapolis, Fargo, Rochester and Sioux Falls. Plevak, who is semiretired, comes in from Colorado.
In between, every Wednesday, a team from Sanford Health — two nurses, a pharmacist and an interpreter — drive in from Sioux Falls to check on their patients.
The patients are so grateful for the help, Father Jim said, that many of them volunteer at the clinics, bringing food and cleaning up.
“It’s just phenomenal to see people, and to know [how sick] they were before and then see where they are now,” he said. “There’s so much bad news these days. You don’t always hear about the good. ... There’s more happening in this divided country than people know.”
Sanford began sending its staff to these Wednesday clinics with the help of a grant. When that money ran out, Sanford continued the outreach with its own money.
“It’s a wonderful project,” said interpreter Hilda Sanchez-Herrera. Working with worried patients, trying to communicate in Spanish or French or Hmong or K’iche’ or an African dialect, she tries to reassure them: “You’re not alone. We’re here to help.”
For Plevak, his work with Our Lady of Guadalupe is an expression of religious faith and his faith in humanity.
“We have people who come from all faith backgrounds and no faith backgrounds, and I think it’s a spiritual experience for everyone that comes,” he said. “It’s not a partisan atmosphere. ... It’s a spirit of goodness and giving and wanting to help. I think a lot of people come because it’s almost a retreat for them.”
Worthington is a city of 13,000 people. More than 40 percent of its population is Latino, and these are frightening times for the thousands of workers in the country illegally who live here. For the immigrants and refugees, the clinic is a haven, offering aid for the stress and depression some are suffering, as well as a reminder that people still care.
“We love our patients,” said Father Jim. “And we just want to make sure they’re healthy.”
For more information about Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, visit olgfreeclinic.com.