Nine times a year, Mexican families with children in need of physical therapy travel to the International Children’s Program clinic at the California border for the chance to have their child treated free of charge by the doctors there.
For three years, Mary Eimers, a Huntington Beach resident and physical therapist at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, has also been traveling to the clinic to give children the help they need but often cannot afford.
“We see the craziest stuff, not like, ‘Oh, I broke my arm.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I was run over by a tractor,’” she said.
Eimers and other doctors treat patients ranging in age from infancy to 21 years old for a variety of orthopedic problems including limb deficiency, scoliosis and cerebral palsy.
“The clinic is just a doctor’s office, and if the children need surgery or consultation about a specialist, we offer transportation up to Los Angeles so they can be seen by a doctor at UCLA,” Eimers said.
Physicians at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles started the program in 1961, according to Lorena Gomez, assistant coordinator of the International Children’s Program. It is mainly funded by donors.
Out of the nine times a year the program goes to the Mexican border, six of them are to Calexico and the other three are overnight visits just over the border in Mexicali.
Gomez said the service that Eimers provides is incredibly important to the program.
“We are always seeking volunteers and we love when Mary goes down there because physical therapy is rare in Mexico, and when it is present it is very expensive,” she said.
Gomez said the program helps about 1,000 children per year and enables 40 to 50 surgeries in Los Angeles.
The program also helps the families obtain visas and entry permits for the surgeries.
“If a child has to have surgery, they have to arrive at our Calexico clinic by 4:30 a.m., which means if they live near the border, they usually need to leave their houses around 2 a.m. in order to get to the border and get through it,” she said.
Sometimes, even with permits, they don’t get to cross at all.
“It is all up to the officer’s discretion whether or not they will let the families cross,” Gomez said.
Eimers, who became interested in physical therapy after a soccer incident when she was young, said she loves her work at UCLA Medical Center but always wanted to give back in other ways.
“Kids would come up for surgery at the hospital and I would see them after they had their surgeries,” she said. “I started asking about the programs and realized they wouldn’t get any therapy after these surgeries. I wanted to see if I could offer something back to them.”
And now, she helps rehabilitate those children.
“I remember there was a little boy with cerebral palsy who had surgery and then was put in a spica cast,” she said. “Transporting him or moving him was very difficult because he was spread apart like a snow angel.”
She said she saw the boy while he was still in his cast, helping him move in and out of his wheel chair.
“After the cast was removed, I taught him exercises and how to walk again,” Eimers said. “It was so rewarding to see a smile on his face because he could walk and was not in pain.”
She said the children and their families are all incredibly grateful for the help they are given.
“We had a raffle for presents and this girl won and was so grateful that she gave the toy back to say thank you,” she said. “They always bring us food and presents and always give us hugs and kisses.”
Eimer’s boss, Julie Tobin, said Eimers takes time off work to participate in the program because it allows her an opportunity she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to provide rehab care in a different way, in a more community-based way,” said Tobin, the inpatient/outpatient rehabilitation manager at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. “She helps people all day long in the hospital, but this is a whole different group. I think she really enjoys the different kind of care.”
Eimers enjoys getting to know the patients and seeing the results of physical therapy.
“You get to spend a lot of time with your patients and you help them get better, and you see the changes over time because you see them more frequently,” she said.
Tobin said Eimers is always thinking about her patients and providing the best possible care.
“She is in the right field and doing the right thing,” Tobin said. “She was made for this.”