Death on the border: Autumn brings no respite on desert

Tuesday was the first day of autumn. Even in the sun-baked Southwest, this signals a weather change. The days are still killing hot – daytime temperature on the floor of the desert can still reach 190 degrees, a temperature at which flesh cooks and bodies turn to dust. Maybe now, we will see a time out – a halt to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of ordinary men, women and children.

But even as the Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders came to Tucson, we learned that this was not to be the case. A young woman from Michoacan, traveling with her husband as they came north looking for a future, fell and died from exhaustion, dehydration, and cardiogenic shock. The number of known dead in the Tucson sector on this second day of autumn is now 151.

Not all the dead are counted.

Jorge (name changed to protect his privacy), 32 years old, married and father of two little girls, crossed the border southwest of Tucson. Jorge is from the agricultural and ranching area in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He had experience as a field hand and was something of an expert in fixing farm machinery and old trucks. He came to find work.

Since NAFTA, corn farming – and business dependent on this mainstay of the Mexican economy and culture – has collapsed in Mexico, leaving hundreds of thousands of people like Jorge without work. His brother, a documented immigrant, knew he could easily find him a good-paying job in Phoenix.

Where he was found, after wandering for three days without food and water, is one of the most desolate and inhospitable regions on earth. His severe dehydration led to the rapid breakdown of his muscles, a condition called rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo releases huge amounts of proteins and products of cell breakdown into the person’s blood stream. This sludge clogs up the kidneys and can cause acute kidney failure. Jorge had several small heart attacks. With a damaged heart and failed kidneys, Jorge was transported to a Tucson intensive care unit.

Although his life was saved, his kidneys continued to fail. He reluctantly started dialysis. All he wanted was to see his family and get to work. All we wanted was to help him stay alive until his own kidneys had the chance to start working again, a process that can take a few weeks. Without dialysis, he would die within a couple of days.

He never got the chance. The connection to life saving dialysis was discontinued. He was packed up. His family was going to fly him to Guadalajara and take him home. Although dialysis is available in Jalisco, there is no facility close to his hometown. It is also expensive.

At least he has a small chance. His family can collect together all their meager savings, sell off their homes and land, and become even more impoverished. And, if they are very lucky, they can find some place that will provide treatment. Maybe another brother or sister can risk another life crossing the border, to come up with the month’s wages that may be necessary to pay for one more treatment. More likely, the complexity and cost will be too overwhelming. Jorge will get a chance to see his wife and children again. And then he will quietly die, his two hard-working hands forever idle.

Eliseo did not even get that chance. No one knows how many days he was in exile in the desert. He was 27. He spent a month in the intensive care unit, while a machine breathed for him. While he never regained consciousness, his heart continued to beat. After a month on a ventilator, his heart finally stopped. The nurse called for resuscitation. The team came. After all he was only 27 years old.

The resuscitation was briefly cancelled while the people in suits argued about odds, and dollars, and politics. When his heart again stopped, he was again resuscitated. And then, it stopped for good. His name will never be counted in the body count in the war against a stupid, cruel, and expensive border policy.

Nurses and doctors are pledged to care for the sick. There is nothing in the oaths we take or the Ethics Codes to which we adhere that says we can only take care of those who have the right kind of papers, skin color, national origin, or economic status. We are compelled by our oaths and souls to bind up the wounds, splint the shattered limbs, treat the third degree foot burns and damaged kidneys, and hold the hands of suffering, frightened ordinary men, women, and children who have come to this promised land looking for work, community, and a future. When we are prohibited from providing the care that we know is necessary, it becomes a job that breaks our hearts.

Every year, these scenarios are repeated again and again along the border. Every year, the numbers grow. Each hospital has its own stories of these uncounted patients. The expense, in uncompensated health care dollars, destroyed lives and broken health care workers, increases daily. There are many human rights and health care rights organizations that are fighting to bring an end to this failed border policy that wastes human life. Find one. Start one. Let’s get to work. Basta ya!

Carolyn Trowbridge is a nephrology nurse in Tucson, Ariz. She can be reached at pww@pww.org