Healthy Talking

“We have a lot of Spanish-speaking patients and we still need extra staff to help us out, give them that extra push [in trusting us],” says Viviana Blanco, a nursing student at Hartnell College.

Eva Suarez sits in the passenger seat of her coworker’s car waiting to receive her first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic in Spreckels exclusively for farmworkers. One problem – there’s a language barrier.

Suarez, 65, only speaks Spanish and so does her coworker, Maria Gomez Luquen, 63. Luquen was not able to get vaccinated at the drive-thru clinic because eligibility at the time was limited to farmworkers ages 65 and older. When the pair was approached by a nursing student, they were asked questions in English about Covid symptoms, allergic reactions and other medical screening topics before Suarez would get a vaccine.

“She only spoke English and Eva didn’t understand until another nurse arrived to help translate for her,” Luquen says in Spanish. “We felt more comfortable with the [Spanish-speaking] nurse compared to what the [other] doctor was explaining to us.”

The person who stepped in to help bridge the communication gap was Viviana Blanco, whose parents themselves have worked in agriculture for more than 40 years. She saw three clinic volunteers administering vaccine that day who could speak Spanish, compared to over 300 workers.

“I have witnessed how important it is for these workers to be guided by an individual who understands their culture, values and most importantly, speaks their language,” Blanco says.

Blanco began her journey into the medical field 16 years ago when her first child, Jacqueline, was born. She became the first in her family to go to college and also the first to receive an associate degree, and continued on to work as a medical assistant.

“My motivation was my child,” Blanco says. “Give her a better life and make my parents proud.”

For the past year, Blanco has been attending Hartnell College’s vocational nursing program. A few months in, the pandemic found its way to Monterey County, and like many other places across the country, had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“Among individuals diagnosed with Covid-19 in Monterey County who self-report their occupation, currently 19 percent are employed in the agriculture industry,” according to a Feb. 25 letter from the Board of Supervisors to CommonSpirit Health and Dignity Health requesting assistance in providing vaccine clinics for farmworkers.

The letter notes that during last year’s farming season, agriculture represented 40 percent of Covid cases in the county. In general, Latinos account for 86 percent of the county’s total cases for which racial and ethnic information is known, but comprise 59 percent of the population.

In June last year, Blanco was laid off from her part-time job as a medical assistant at Laurel Family Practice Clinic in Salinas. She saw it as an opportunity to focus full-time on her studies with the support of her partner, Jorge, and children, Jacqueline, 15, and Ethan, 6. A component of the program involves clinical hours, some of which Blanco spends vaccinating people at different sites throughout the county such as the clinic at D’Arrigo Bros. in Spreckels, organized by the Grower-Shipper Association and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas.

“It’s really great to see how our grads go into local facilities and make them better,” says Toni Gifford, assistant director of vocational nursing at Hartnell. “They go in and they help be part of the solution.”

Blanco, now in her final semester, plans to work in the medical field for up to a year after graduating in May. She then plans to apply to registered nursing programs at Hartnell and as far as San Jose State. Whichever direction her plan goes, she still wants to return to Salinas, the place she calls home.

“They need us here,” she says.

As for Luquen, she recently celebrated her birthday and shared excitement about securing an appointment for her first dose of Covid vaccine later this month at a clinic in Castroville. She says the majority of the health care workers there are Latino and speak Spanish, an encouraging reflection of her background that meets her needs.

“God is great,” Luquen adds. “He will protect me until I get vaccinated.”

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