The name “Texas” is based on the word “tejas.” It’s a Spanish adaptation of a word used by East Texas Caddo Indians meaning “allies” or “friends.” Texas is a friendly state, and the principle of helping others can be seen in every county. The values placed on community development have laid the groundwork for future generations, and the idea that Texans are “friends” is something that every Texan, from Brownsville to Amarillo, can understand.

Friends care for each other, and allies help each other against enemies. And when it comes to battling enemies like chronic disease and poor health care networks, South Texas has found a new ally. Healthy South Texas is a program dedication to improving the lives of everyone in the South Texas region, in addition to setting a foundation for interdisciplinary success in education and applied research for future generations of health care professionals.

“The Rio Grande Valley has over 1.3 million citizens, many who are underserved or uninsured,” said Olga Gabriel, MPH, director of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center McAllen campus. “We wanted to have a role in the community that isn’t just academic, but is about applying the research we’re doing to community outreach and involvement.”

The need for greater medical presence in the lower Rio Grande Valley was clear. Many families in the area struggle with asthma, diabetes and infectious diseases, and many have often relied on traveling across the border to get their medication at a cheaper rate because they cannot afford to buy it in the United States.

With these health difficulties in the area, and the 1.3 million Americans in the four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley (not including the thousands of Mexican citizens who spend time on this side of the river), improving health needed a group effort.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus was established in 2000, serving as the Texas A&M System’s most southern location. The campus offers a Bachelor of Science in Public Health and Master of Public Health Degree and has branches that spread wide through other disciplines of health.

“There is a desperate need for nurses in the community,” Gabriel said. “We knew we had to be more than just an academic institution, and the Health Science Center expanded to include College of Nursing faculty members with applied research who could make an immediate impact.”

The campus has become much more than just an institution of public health; it has become its own “mini” Health Science Center, with two of the five disciplines making up the entire Texas A&M University Health Science Center: nursing, and public health and occasionally pharmacy, are housed in McAllen.

“Our location served as the colloquia location for the College of Pharmacy,” Gabriel said. “The clinic next door houses our Diabetes Education Program, which is managed by administration here, and it is where College of Dentistry students will be doing their practicum.”

Poverty in the Rio Grande Valley is a major problem as well, as cities of Cameron County often top the list of America’s poorest cities. This can affect the health of a community if they have to make tough choices between paying for food, shelter or medication.

“We try to offer assistance in every way that we can, such as education and intervention programs that help reinforce a healthy lifestyle, and help deter costly chronic diseases,” Gabriel said. “We also have large events that the entire community is welcome to attend to foster community engagement and help families make healthy changes to prevent health problems later in life.”

In 2013, the Brownsville-Harlingen area had a poverty rate of 36 percent, and the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area had an average poverty rate of 34 percent, which were the highest and second-highest poverty rates in the nation, respectively. Many of the residents were also living without health insurance, which means a community intervention was needed.

“Not only are we trying to help and educate the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley, we occasionally see the same number of people from Mexico, and we give them the same resources to improve their health,” Gabriel said. “Whether it’s through medication assistance or through the diabetes and asthma programs we have, our goal is to assist the community’s health needs.”

Some of the community events can range from medication assessment days, to a large health expo like the Our Health is Wealth Expo in McAllen in late September. The event had free programs including medication review, giveaways, information pamphlets and brochures, flu shots and much more for people in attendance.

“We hold several medication review days where residents come in with all of their medication in a bag and the College of Pharmacy students with their instructor go over the medications and make sure the participant understands how to properly take them and can suggest ways to alleviate side effects,” Gabriel said. “The McAllen Expo was almost entirely interdisciplinary involvement talking about diabetes, obesity, asthma, Zika and a whole variety of health involvement.  It’s about getting the education to the people and service for the community.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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