Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | People

For the People: Yolanda Villalvazo

By Angie Toomsen
Med student Yolanda Villalvazo helps bring much-needed medical attention to Iowa's migrant and seasonal workers.

Every spring and summer, nearly 2,000 migrant workers from Southwestern states and Mexico travel to Iowa for corn-harvesting season. Many Iowans probably don't know they exist, but Yolanda Villalvazo certainly does.

A third-year medical student who is pursuing a master's degree in public health, she headed into the fields this past summer on an internship funded by the UI Center for Human Rights and the family practice department to bring health care to the migrant community. Migrants labor from dawn until dusk in dusty campsites and sweltering fields, enduring dehydration, limited sanitation facilities, and exposure to pesticides and dangerous chemicals. Because they have little or no insurance, the illnesses they develop from working in such conditions often go untreated.       

Serving as a physician's assistant for the nonprofit corporation Proteus, Villalvazo provided basic exams, health screening, cholesterol checks, and referrals and treatment vouchers for doctors in the community.

"Migrant workers are easy to ignore because they live such transient lives," says Villalvazo, a California native and the daughter of Latino citrus farmers. "We're starting to address their needs, but there's so much more work to do."

Common health issues among seasonal workers include diabetes, tuberculosis, parasitic infections, poor dental hygiene, and nutritional deficiencies. Social issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and parental neglect also plague this overlooked population. While most migrant workers are of Latino background, many—contrary to stereotype—are U.S. citizens. Even so, Villalvazo believes a person's citizenship status shouldn't determine access to proper care.

"I look at this as a public health issue first," she says. "To protect the overall health of the U.S. population, we must help all groups, regardless of ethnic background, citizenship, or economic status."

Villalvazo now works with Proteus to build preventative education programs, and she hopes to forge a relationship between the organization and the UI Mobile Clinic that provides health care to underserved people. This past fall, she presented a proposal at the New York University Latino Health Conference in New York City that implored public health agencies to launch awareness campaigns on behalf of migrant workers. After graduation, she hopes to pursue research that will help the U.S. Centers for Disease Control implement programs to assist seasonal laborers.

"When I think about all of the people I have the potential to help," she says, "it inspires me to pursue my education with greater conviction and stand for those who otherwise do not have a voice."