In a single year, thousands of women will walk through the doors of a nondescript building in downtown McAllen, Texas. That decision could end up saving their lives.
The building is one of UTMB’s 13 Regional Maternal and Child Health Program clinics spread out across the state and it serves a unique role for women in the Rio Grande Valley.
UTMB physician assistants and nurse practitioners who work in the clinic deal with all kinds of women’s health and family planning concerns—but the majority of patients come in for cancer screenings and followup on abnormal pap smears and cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition in which abnormal cell growth occurs. Both Myra Guerra, physician assistant and clinic director of the McAllen clinic, and Monica Hernandez, family nurse practitioner at the clinic, perform colposcopies, a procedure that closely examines the cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease, and loop electrosurgical excision procedures to remove abnormal tissue from the cervix for dysplasia patients.
The clinic provides a vital service in the Rio Grande Valley, an area that has some of the highest cervical cancer death rates in the state. Lack of access and resources is one of the major culprits.
Most of the women who come to the McAllen clinic are there for cervical and breast cancer screenings. The clinic is one of the few places to get those kind of services and it’s become the place that many doctors in the area refer women, Guerra said.
In the past year the clinic saw over 6,000 patients.
“We see all types of women, those that fall under grant funding and those that are insured,” Guerra said. “We are here to help as many women as we can because prevention is the key.”
The staff at the clinic work with patients who are uninsured to place them into the proper grant or program to receive low-cost or free screenings.
“With our clinic we can see any woman,” said SelinaTristan, nurse clinician and safety coach at the clinic. “We have a way to see everybody, whether insured or uninsured. We see all ages, teenagers to senior citizens. We try to serve the entire community.”
When she meets with patients she will go over everything from family planning to cancer related counseling with the goal of keeping women from falling through the cracks.
The clinic works closely with UTMB’s Galveston Campus, which analyzes samples. UTMB doctors visit the clinic every month to see patients.
The clinic has filled an important need in the Valley. So much so that when the clinic closed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, women and civic leaders in the area rallied to save it.
“A patient told me she would not trade this clinic or its providers for anyone else,” Guerra said. “One young patient even told us that we helped save her life.”
Hernandez said the employees at the clinic try to do the most they can for patients they know may not be able to get care anywhere else.
“A lot of times this is the only place they go as far as getting their routine care,” Hernandez said. “So you try to answer all their questions and fears and do as much testing as allowed.”
The clinic staff goes “above and beyond” to provide the best care possible to their patients, said Marlo Cochran, DNP, administrative director of the Regional Maternal and Child Health Program.
Staff members have diagnosed numerous cancers and have helped those patients maneuver through the health care process, she said.
“The staff in the clinic provide exceptional clinical care to these patients, but much of their care includes the emotional support and navigation needed to assist these women for cancer treatment and long-term follow up,” Cochran said.