Senator Amanda Aguirre

The gifts of education and health care

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Gift giving evokes images of ribbons, wrapping paper, and, given the season – shopping! Yet, the most valuable gifts can’t be purchased at a store or crammed into a box. I learned this a long time ago from my parents, both elementary school teachers, who taught me there was no greater gift in life than a good education. An education endures and grows with time, provides freedom and carries people to places they’d never thought possible.  And while the gift of education influences the individual, the people in their lives and those they encounter also benefit.

Such is the case for residents who have discovered the Arizona Area Health Education Centers (AHEC). The centers – located regionally in eastern, southeastern, western, northern, and greater Valley Arizona – are nonprofit organizations that promote community and educational partnerships. The centers enhance access to quality health care with an emphasis on the needs of rural and urban underserved communities and populations.

While AHEC works directly with graduate programs in health care, it has also impacted high school dropouts, former welfare recipients, and the unemployed. People are being trained to work in the medical field, and our communities are simultaneously growing a talented group of healthcare professionals where none existed.

Thanks to AHEC, people like Reese Jones, a graduate from A.T. Still University in Mesa, Arizona, have made Yuma their home.  While Reese was earning his physician assistant credentials, he rotated through the San Luis Walk-in Clinic, and upon graduation decided to stay. In two short months, Reese who is fluent in Spanish,  has personally been involved in the care of breast cancer in a 40-year-old mother, early diagnosis of diabetes in a teenage girl, and intervened in the heart attack of a 29-year-old man.

And because attracting medical professionals to rural communities is a challenge, AHEC supports a “grow your own” strategy. Emphasis is placed on programs that encourage elementary and high school students to embrace math and science, key courses needed to thrive in a health career, as well as mentorship of students.  As a result, people like Victor Noriega, a former student at Douglas High School, are participating in programs like the AHEC-sponsored High School Health Career Club. Today, Victor is pursuing a degree in nursing at Cochise College of Nursing while working at Douglas Hospital as well as a nursing home.

Despite the challenging times, economic development in the healthcare industry is maintaining steady. It’s reported that for every doctor, there are at minimum five support jobs that need to be filled. This bodes well for investment in programs like AHEC. It makes sense, as a state and for our Latino communities positively impacted by the programs because of geography alone, that many of the centers are located in communities with high Latino populations. I’m proud to say that in the case of the Western Region AHEC program – Yuma, La Paz, and Mohave counties – people are being trained and placed quickly. To date, nursing assistants have experienced a 100-percent placement rate.

Whether landing a new job or having access to health care delivered by qualified individuals, AHEC will make the season brighter for some. Year round, other individuals will continue to change their lives through education, and in turn, provide health care to people in places where it is most disparate, sharing their talents with others – the type of gift that truly changes lives.

Healthy Arizona 2010. Arizona Area Health Education Centers (AHECs) are funded by Healthy Arizona 2010, which is supported by the Arizona Lottery through its ticket sales. Last year Healthy Arizona received more than $20 million as a beneficiary of the Arizona Lottery.

AHECs deliver much-needed health services to families in rural communities throughout Arizona. They offer training and education for nurses, nurse practitioners and doctors, as well as recruitment efforts for these professions while delivering healthcare services in these underserved communities.

Other programs funded by Healthy Arizona 2010 include Healthy Families and Health Start, which offer prenatal care, child development and nutritional information as well as referrals to community services for the critical first years of a child’s development. These program dollars also support the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Food Program and offer teen pregnancy prevention programs.

Senator Amanda Aguirre is a member of the 49th Arizona State Legislature representing District 24. She is the president and CEO of the Regional Center for Border Health, Inc., and the chief executive officer and president of the San Luis Walk-In Clinic. Sen. Aguirre has been involved for more than 25 years in public health education and administration with a strong emphasis in U.S.-Mexico border health issues.

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