On a scorching July day in Corpus Christi, the cool air inside West Oso Junior High School is a welcome refuge.
Inside the sprawling building near the city’s western outskirts — temporarily vacant until classes restart in the fall — residents in need of medical attention sit on plastic chairs in the cafeteria. For some, it will be the first time they’ve seen a doctor in years.
For the third time, the Texas A&M University Colonias Program has partnered with local authorities and the US Department of Defense to set up temporary clinics in Corpus Christi and surrounding communities as part of Operation Health and Wellness. From July 18-27, families were invited to visit any of four different sites to receive medical, dental, optometry and veterinary services — all provided free of charge by units like the US Army’s 176th Medical Brigade, as well as a number of local partner organizations and some dedicated Aggies from across the university.
Across the four sites, roughly 2,000 patients turned out to receive treatment.
At West Oso, classrooms were converted into examination rooms, an area near the football stadium served as a walk-up veterinary clinic, and the school’s band hall became a bustling dentist’s office, bringing much-needed relief to residents.
“It’s a very fulfilling job,” said Joe Gutierrez, a regional director with the Colonias Program. “I’ll ask people, ‘How do you feel now?’ and one woman said, ‘I hadn’t been able to sleep in six months because of my teeth, but I came in and they extracted four of them, and last night I slept like a baby.’”
Other dental procedures ranged from simple cleanings to an oral tumor extraction. On their way out, some patients were directed down a hall to the teacher’s lounge, where a small Army-run pharmacy provided an array of common medications, also free of charge.
‘Knocking On Doors’
Since 1991, the Colonias Program has been working to improve quality of life in South Texas’ 2,000-plus colonias — unincorporated housing developments near the Texas-Mexico border that often lack basic utilities like running water and sewer access. In Nueces County, where Corpus Christi is located, there are 38 officially registered colonies.
“Our mission is to build capacity and to build sustainability so that we can improve their living conditions,” said Texas A&M Colonias Director Oscar Munoz. “Our model is very simple. We don’t just come in from the outside and say, ‘This is what you need, this is who you are.’ We ask what they need — and we listen.”
While anyone can receive care through Operation Health and Wellness, Gutierrez said events like these are particularly beneficial for families who live in the colonias and don’t have regular access to healthcare. To that end, a portion of the operation involves sending teams into each nearby colonia to spread the word and arrange transportation for patients who need it.
These outreach efforts serve a dual purpose, said Col. Monica Martinez, a nurse practitioner and three-time mission commander for Operation Health and Wellness. In addition to connecting colonia residents with necessary medical services, it also provides a snapshot of each colonia’s unique needs and circumstances.
“Texas A&M has provided a wealth of information,” Martinez said. “They’ve identified these areas with some socioeconomic struggles, so we’ve gone to check on the people there, knocking on doors and asking questions.”
In total, more than 1,000 individual homes and properties were surveyed during the July mission.
“It’s been very humble to hear people’s stories about the way they live,” Martinez said. “Yesterday there was one woman that didn’t have any running water. She seemed to be handling it well, she had other ways of getting water into her home, but in the long run, it will be nice to see how Texas A&M and the Colonias Program can help support her.”
The data collected during these colonia visits — led by a civil affairs unit of the US Marine Corps — will ultimately be shared with state and local authorities so the colonias can qualify for community development grants and other additional resources.
“In other areas we’ve served, they’ve gone from $20-30 million dollars in funding to $470 million,” Gutierrez said. “The beauty of this is it’s not costing the county any money out of their budget, and they’re going to get immediate results. They’ll be able to start working with that data and getting more money to serve the communities they have here.”
In total, Texas A&M Colonias has taken part in 19 different military missions since it started working with the Defense Department in the mid-2010s, Munoz said.
As Gutierrez explains, the partnership began with a relatively simple idea.
“We had a meeting at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and they talked about going overseas to other countries to carry out medical missions, engineering missions and civil affairs missions,” he explained. “We said, ‘Why go overseas when you can stay in Texas and provide these services?’”
After a few years of planning, the first Operation Health and Wellness took place in 2017 in Laredo. Subsequent operations have served residents of Maverick County and, most recently, Nueces County.
While the benefits for these communities are evident, Martinez said these kinds of operations also ensure that military personnel have the proper training and experience to respond to a variety of emergency situations. The process of setting up and operating these temporary clinics closely matches the kind of work they’ll be expected to perform in the event of a hurricane or other disaster.
“For our service members in particular, they’re getting hands-on training, learning to practice their skills in case of any disaster or in case of combat,” she said. “So we’re able to provide this training for our servicemembers and the community profits from all the care we’re able to give them.”
The same was true for the handful Texas A&M students assisting with this year’s operation. Area natives Lisette Garcia and Laura Kiechnick drove up from Kingsville, where they are both students at the Texas A&M Irma Lerma Rangel School of Pharmacy, to help distribute medications to patients at West Oso.
“Growing up here, there are a lot of health disparities,” Garcia said. “A lot of people can’t afford medication, or they don’t have the proper education on how to take their medication. I’ve seen some of the repercussions from family members not taking their medications.”
After graduation, both Garcia and Kiechnick said they plan to work as local retail pharmacists, remaining connected to their communities and working to address these kinds of issues through face-to-face interaction and education.
“Having a pharmacy in a teacher’s lounge has been a little strange, but I would definitely say it’s been good practice,” Kiechnick said. “I’ve really enjoyed being able to answer questions and educate patients on the medications they’re receiving and why they’re receiving them.”
During their time in Corpus Christi, the two got a chance to work alongside fellow Aggies from other Texas A&M schools, including several members of the Global Health Outreach student organization. Garcia said it was gratifying to see students collaborating with servicemembers and local healthcare professionals to provide this crucial service to her hometown.
“Seeing everyone working together has been really amazing,” she said. “I think it’s very important that we continue to do these kinds of events out the community. The people that come in, they’re aunts and sisters, mothers and fathers — so it’s important for us to make a difference and make sure these patients’ lives are as long and healthy as they can be.”