By Isabel Bahena
We have the blessing of meeting outstanding people with great stories. We had been trying to interview Roman for months after hearing of his incredible trials and achievements. Last week we got to interview him, and his story was even better than we expected.
Roman Chavez told us he was born in Tijuana and started using drugs at age 6. By the time he was 11, the problem was so bad that his mother decided to relocate to the US. After living there 8 years, he says he hit rock bottom at age 19. Not wanting to subject his mother to anything further, he relocated back to Tijuana and in some providential way, found his way to Las Memorias. Las Memorias is an HIV/tuberculosis and drug rehabilitation clinic. Las Memorias was a Godsend. He met people who cared for and began to treat him through the Narcotics Anonymous program. He came to believe that he could change. He believes God led him there and that it was the love of God in those he encountered there that was shared with him.
While in Las Memorias, he met people who volunteered there, including a doctor who inspired him to enter college. Having just achieved average grades in high school, it is remarkable that he decided to major in chemistry. Roman says, when asked why chemistry, that one day he witnessed 16 people die at the clinic from tuberculosis. It was that day it was put on his heart to find a way to help people at the clinic. The volunteer doctor told him he would buy him any books he wanted, so he began reading all the medical books he could get. So started a 4-year journey to get a bachelor’s degree, which culminated in 2004. His mother still in the US asked him to relocate back with her, after he was rehabilitated. Roman told her he was not ready, and if he went back, he would probably fall again. After he declined, his mom was sad but accepted his decision and helped with his tuition. He occasionally got a weekend construction job in the US to help with expenses. As remarkable as that sounds, he tells us that he had to travel 13 miles each way by bicycle over roads where the buses cared little about a bicyclist in their path. At first it took 2 hours, but as he got better, he could make the trip in one hour.
After getting his degree in chemistry, he says he reentered society. He got a job with Red Cross, which was only a side job while he pursued a master’s degree. The university then hired him, and he was able to finish his masters in biochemistry and biophysics, getting the second highest grades in the school. Today Roman has a doctorate and is a full-time professor of microbiology and biophysics at a university in Tijuana. However, he never stopped remembering the commitment to find a way to help people at Las Memorias.
Today, at age 44, he volunteers at Las Memorias, and his wife and 4-year-old son accompany him. He says he always remembers to treat people as people, whether students in the college or patients at Las Memorias. He has championed the building and operation of a pharmacy, a lab, and an isolation ward. The lab can test for tuberculosis and other conditions, including COVID. The lab has several sophisticated and expensive machines, all of which he purchased, many on Ebay. He was able to recondition and resell medical machines on Ebay for a significant profit to help fund their projects. Currently, they have two more projects underway; a school for young children (Las Memorias houses clients who have children) and a computer lab. He has plans for a physical therapy clinic and a dentist office. Las Memorias had a death rate of 50% during his early years there, but today, the death rate is down to 10%. He always communicates to the clients at Las Memorias that they can change. When asked about his faith, he says he has been given the love of God and shares it with others. He says he was inspired by various volunteers and a cross country teacher back in high school, who demonstrated the love of God. He even had associations with and was inspired by Mother Antonia, who was the Mother Teresa of Tijuana for many years. He has been clean for many years but still attends Narcotics Anonymous and says he needs it. It is not uncommon for him, when meeting with patients, to pull out his wallet or to stop and take the time needed to hear a person’s story.
When asked if there is something he would like to convey to people who might read his story, he says “just get involved” and come visit. He would love to start a foundation and have a way for people to give. When asked if there was anything he did not want us to say in this article, he said he prefers to be thought of as in rehab, not as an addict. He smiles and says that he has a troublesome fear that if one tells his story and he later fails, it will be even worse. He doesn’t want his story to go away; he wants it to help others.
One of the most feared diseases for me as a doctor is Diabetes Mellitus. It is a very common disease in Mexico. However, most people have never heard of it. Yet, it has become so common that people have come to normalize it and underestimate how dangerous it can be. Another aspect of this disease that terrifies me is how difficult it is to get the right treatment for these patients. There is no cure for this condition; we simply try to control it.
Controlling it is rarely achieved. This is because we cannot simply prescribe a pill to the patient. Control is achieved with a change of life. Those who suffer from this disease must change their diet. They have eaten a certain way all their life and suddenly a disease forces them to learn a new diet. And it is necessary for the family of the patient to support the person by helping the person change his lifestyle. A patient with diabetes should exercise regularly. But that too is difficult, since throughout their life they probably never developed that habit. The person overnight must start doing at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. The willpower that one must muster to achieve this life change is very challenging. To make matters worse, they often endure the criticism of the people around them, which only serves to demotivate. Sadly, it is all too common for them to continue the lifestyle that led to the disease.
Mr. Gregorio is one of these people who suffers from Diabetes Mellitus. When I met Mr. Gregorio, this disease had already taken one of the most valuable senses of the human being, vision. This loss left him unable to work. His wife takes care of him and consequently cannot work either. She is the eyes of her husband. This couple survives with the help of their three children, who occasionally do things for them. But it is not enough to meet the needs of their parents.
The social outreach program of the María Inmaculada parish helps them with food baskets and more recently with healthcare. Unfortunately, when a patient has been suffering from this disease for many years and his health has deteriorated, things are more complicated. I agreed to visit Mr. Gregorio hoping to be able to help him in some way. On my first visit to their house, they invited me in very politely. They asked me to check his foot injury. While checking it I realized that part of the flesh of his foot was dead. There was no way to save it. The dead flesh caused an infection. The infection in turn took away his strength. It also caused night fevers which prevented him from sleeping.
As much as they could, the family got money to treat the man. But medicines cannot revive dead flesh, and it became necessary to amputate the foot. Eventually, Mr. Gregorio’s leg was also amputated. Now he is recovering from that surgery and coming to terms with the loss of his leg. We have been helping with the cleaning of his wound and providing materials to keep the wound clean. If not done correctly, it is very easy for the infection to come back and risk further amputation.
Diabetes attacks everyone equally, regardless of the status of the person. However poor people cannot afford a healthy diet and simply eat what is convenient and affordable. This fact causes them great damage in the long term.
Our featured student is Montaño Tapango Emmanuel Isaac, who graduated as a mechatronics engineer, thanks in part to the sponsorship of Gini and Tom Vandergon. He has helped us when we make calls for blood donors. He plays base in the church choir. He also gave up his Christmas Day to join with other youth as they did a painting project at a senior center.