Public health major finds calling in post-quake Mexico

On Sept. 19, while studying for his physics midterm, undergraduate Juan Medina-Echeverria, 26, checked a news site and saw people frantically digging for children trapped in rubble from that day’s deadly 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico City. Something shook him, too.

Juan Medina-Echeverria is a public health major, nurse and father of two. (UC Berkeley by Hulda Nelson)

Medina-Echeverria, who lives in Hayward and is of Mexican heritage, didn’t know anyone in that part of the country. But he followed his gut instinct, bought a plane ticket and landed in Mexico City the following day. What happened on his whirlwind trip helped this bilingual nurse, public health major and father of two young children better define his career path.

Berkeley News recently talked with Medina-Echeverria about what he calls a “very life-changing” four-day experience.

That was a fast decision. What prompted you to drop everything and go?

 Seeing those kids trapped while my kids were in bed and safe got me the most. I thought, ‘I’m a nurse, I have emergency medical experience, and I can speak Spanish. Why not just get on a plane and go? People are suffering. If I can help in any way, now is the time.” I was prepared for it, at that moment.

You had a midterm coming up, plus a job at a hospital, two kids and a tight budget. How did you pull this trip together?

Many houses in the state of Morelos that were made of adobe crumbled in the recent quake, like this one in the town of Totolapan. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

I immediately went on Facebook and said I was going to Mexico City and asked if anyone knew people there. I did get replies, and I also called the Mexican Red Cross in Mexico City. A woman there told me, “Please come. We’ll see you here. This is our address, just show up, and we’ll find something for you to do.” That was my green light.

I also started a GoFundMe account and wrote a short summary of my project. My older brother, Gilberto, who’s in the business world, sent a link to his clients, and my family and friends donated as well. I aimed for $800, to cover my last-minute plane ticket and accommodations, but we raised $1,395 in 24 hours, and anything left over I gave away in Mexico.

Donations of medicine await sorting and distribution at a relief center. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

I thank my wife, Victoria, so much for holding down the fort with our kids, who are five and seven. I took off time from my job, which I knew would be a big financial ding for me. Luckily, my manager and supervisor at Sutter Hospital said it was fine to go, to apply what I was learning to disaster relief. My midterm was supposed to be Tuesday, the day after I returned to California, but my professor gave me an extra day.

Once you got to Mexico City, you moved on to the state of Morelos. Why?

At the Mexican Red Cross headquarters, I showed my credentials and certification in advanced cardiac life support and pediatric cardiac life support to a doctor, who agreed to let me work in the tents outside, which I did for a day. But I noticed that most of the earthquake relief efforts were focused on Mexico City – citizens had mobilized quickly, and there were many centers for people to find supplies, medication, wound care and other help.

A Mexico City collection center fills with donations from Mexican citizens who are helping those affected by the 7.1 magnitude quake. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

Relief wasn’t getting to the people in towns two hours away, and I felt I could help there more directly. A woman named Arely from the Red Cross connected me with a group on social media, through WhatsApp, and I wound up in a convoy of 15 people, all of them professionals and Mexican citizens. It was very risky going to Morelos, since you can encounter drug cartels on the way. Just a few days ago, someone was taking help there and was robbed and shot, and the woman in the car was raped. These cartels want the supplies for themselves. Our “brigada” left early in the morning and returned to Mexico City before dark.

What did you discover in these rural towns?

We went to four towns in one day – Oaxtepec, Tiayacapan, Totolapan and Tetelcingo – and the situation there was far worse than in Mexico City. There was no help and lots of poverty. In Tetelcingo, the hardest hit and the smallest, with approximately 6,000 residents, about 1,000 people were displaced and all living in tents and under tarp, and it was raining heavily. There was no clean water, no bathrooms, no food. From a public health perspective, they were in a very tough living situation.

There also were no doctors in town, and if you’ve lost everything, you don’t have money to travel to see a doctor somewhere else. And public transportation is not the best there.

At a collection center Totolapan, Mexican citizens donated and distributed supplies. Medina-Echeverria and his brigade shared items from this center with residents of Tetelcingo. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

When I arrived, a table had been set up for medical services in the middle of a park, but it was a table without supplies. Four days after the quake, I was the first person to provide medical help. I’d brought supplies from home to check people’s vital signs, and I also did wound care. For example, people had hurt their feet walking barefoot on gravel after losing their shoes. They’d lost everything in the quake.

I classified medications that had been donated by Mexican citizens, since the residents of these towns didn’t know what the different types of medication were for. As a nurse, I also prescribed medication for them.

One of the members of our brigada was a young lawyer, Pascual, from Mexico City, who used his own money to assemble boxes of food, water, cleaning supplies, tools, blankets, clothes, toiletries, flashlights and medical supplies. I was shocked that a lawyer from a wealthy family would want to help the poor. A woman in our group named Maribel opened her home to us on Sunday night, on our way home from Morelos. The life lesson I got was that the citizens of Mexico mobilize fast, and the rich help the poor – they all come together as one to help each other out.

You’re now a nurse and aim to be a doctor. How did your career in medicine begin?

Mexican citizens active in search and rescue efforts pose in Mexico City between their work in “los escombros,” the rubble. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

My family’s mostly in retail or business, but since elementary school, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. I did a special program at my high school in Newark that involved bedside care – feeding and showering patients, taking their blood pressure. My senior year I got hired at a nursing facility and found I was good with patients. I worked there from 2009 to 2011. My manager thought I’d make a good charge nurse, and in 2011, I graduated with a degree in nursing from Unitek College. I then attended Ohlone College and took the general ed pre-reqs for public health and pre-med classes – and was told by a counselor that I’d never get into UC Berkeley. That shattered my dreams. But I found a mentor in Bryan Martinez, from UC Berkeley’s Transfer Alliance Project, who listened to my story – I came from a community where nobody went to college – and he helped me believe, and I applied to Cal.

Before I transferred to Berkeley in 2014, I started working at Sutter Hospital in San Mateo doing urgent care and working in the ER. I’m still there now.

This short trip to Mexico had a big impact on you. Tell us about that.

In Totolapan, the Ex Convento de San Guillermo convent was entirely destroyed by the Sept. 19 quake. The Mexican flag planted next to the convent symbolizes the town’s hope for the future. (Photo by Juan Medina-Echeverria)

I found a new love in my career, a new calling, and that’s humanitarian work in times of natural disaster. I have always loved helping and caring for people and am still going to pursue my degree and, one day, I hope to be a medical doctor and a cardiac surgeon. But I now see myself becoming a traveling doctor, like for Doctors Without Borders. When you help in a disaster, you don’t talk about billing patients, compensation for services. You just help. I love that part – helping and not expecting anything in return.

What got me most on the trip was that people in these towns stopped what they were doing when we left and were clapping, tearing up and saying thank you. It was very hard to leave them. I wished I could have stayed longer. I teared up when I saw them tearing up.

Here at Berkeley, in the School of Public Health, the mentality is helping others without getting anything back. Everyone majoring in public health volunteers so much, and the university also really fosters volunteerism in the community.

We all should love what we do and be motivated only by what is going to make a greater impact on humanity. I plan to go back to Mexico in a few weeks and continue to help. The towns still have to rebuild.