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September 01, 2000

Elizabeth Jones and Gabriel Chong King: Making the Impossible Dream Come True

By Dennis Buskirk and Pam Torlone

Imagine your child has a critical illness, and you must get medical help fast. You first call a private doctor but are unable to afford the expense. You apply for local aid, but you do not qualify for assistance. You go to the local hospital but find there are no pediatric specialists, and the cost is still too high. Your child's condition gets worse, and you realize your only hope is to travel to a foreign country in order to find specialists who can save your child's life.

This might be your worst nightmare. But for many families living in Mexico, only a few miles from San Diego, California, it is worse than a nightmare-it is a reality. San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, together form the largest international border community in the world. But in all of Northwestern Mexico, there is not one pediatric medical specialty center to care for children's needs. Although families from Mexico could theoretically travel to Children's Hospital in San Diego, that is an expensive trip to a foreign country where few Mexican citizens qualify for medical aid.

The Dream
This is the human rights crisis that was on the minds of dietitian, nutritionist, noted author, and lecturer on pediatric nutrition, Elizabeth Jones, EdD, MPH, RD, and Tijuana pediatric surgeon Dr. Pedro Gabriel Chong King, in the early 1980s. Jones and Chong met while Jones was volunteering for the Project Concern Hospital, a Mexican-American hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, built to serve the economically disadvantaged, and Chong was director of Development Intragal of the Family (DIF), a Mexican government organization for families without resources.

When Jones and Chong began to compare notes, they realized they had a common dream: to build a complete pediatric hospital and educational complex for the children of the region. Dr. Chong observed that "There is no specialized medicine for children in a city with a population [of] more than one million children. Children are not small adults-the medical personnel and technology needed to care for them must be specialized."

"There are pediatric specialists and various facilities and clinics in the region, but no pediatric specialty clinic, until Hospital Infantil opened in 1994, and there is still no pediatric hospital in all of Northern Mexico," continued Chong.

By 1984, Drs. Jones and Chong (along with two other medical professionals) had been awarded a Cowel Grant from San Diego State University to study the feasibility of establishing a pediatric nutrition rehabilitation center in Tijuana. They faced immense problems from the beginning. They needed money to build the facility. Funding the project would be a challenge because wealthy Mexican citizens, who usually take their own children across the border into San Diego for treatment, are not generally known for their philanthropy. At the same time, many U.S. citizens are not motivated to fund such projects, especially when illegal immigration and drugs are such politically hot topics. Even with funding, the lengthy procedures involved in building new facilities in Mexico would require enormous patience and persistence over a long period of time. The hospital would have to be built in stages, as funds became available.

Dr. Jones, a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, called on the assistance of Canadian friends to help her develop a long-range master plan. After a feasibility study completed in 1990 assessed the need for the new hospital and recommended the further development of resources, Drs. Jones and Chong decided to push ahead with the project. They founded the first of three foundations-the Foundation for the Children of the Californias (FCC)-to help raise money for the hospital project.

The following year, Dr. Chong established a mirror-image sister foundation in Mexico-Fundación Para los Niños de las Californias (FNC). A third organization, Foundation of Canadian Friends of the Children of the Californias (FCFCC), was later formed in Canada, in 1995. With one of her colleagues, Carlos Malamud, Dr. Jones established an International Advisory Board comprised of distinguished members from the countries in which the three foundations were based.

In 1993, to help prepare her for raising public awareness as well as funds for the project, Dr. Jones participated in a program sponsored by Leadership, Education, Awareness, and Development (LEAD), an organization committed to the development of community leaders, creative problem-solvers, and leaders in San Diego's public and private sectors. She then immediately began speaking before service groups and at professional conferences to promote awareness about the pediatric hospital and to obtain funding.

Stage One
After several years of intensive work and fundraising campaigns, the U.S. and Mexican foundations finally had enough money to proceed. In 1994, they received a gift from the government of Baja, California, of 4.5 acres of prime real estate located one-half mile from the Otay Mesa border. Here they established the first part of the project's long-range plan, the pediatric medical specialty clinic. The original 2,200-square-foot clinic was constructed through funds raised from street campaigns in Mexico and supporters in San Diego and Canada. The clinic opened its doors in May 1994, offering sixteen medical specialty clinics staffed with medical professionals and community volunteers from both Mexico and the U.S.

Originally designed to accommodate 400 patient visits per month, the clinic was soon receiving requests for appointments far exceeding that number. As the number of specialty clinics increased and more volunteers offered their time, the number of patients that were seen at the clinic grew. In 1997, the clinic added a surgery suite and rooms for dental and ophthalmology clinics, making it 3,400 total square feet in size. The average family pays less than $5 per visitand, remarkably, the clinic has operated without debt since its second month of operation.

Dr. Jones has worked hands-on at the clinic each week, at the same time maintaining her teaching position at San Diego State University and serving as president of the FCC. Dr. Chong has maintained his practice, while acting as president of the FNC. They have established a community outreach program in Tijuana, initially funded with a Rockefeller Foundation grant, to train community doctors in pediatric nutrition and care. Weekly, a team of medical professionals from the clinic visits selected Mexican colonias, in a donated ambulance, providing medical referrals and healthcare education.

Stage Two
Recently, a big boost for the FCC and FNC came from their annual telethon, held in Tijuana on April 29, 2000, in celebration of the Day of the Child, a traditional holiday in Mexico. Thanks to San Diego Padres baseball team owner John Moores, who pledged to donate $2 for every $1 raised by the telethon, the two foundations raised over $2.5 million to build and furnish Stage 2-A of the expansion. Called DARTE-meaning "to give to" in Spanish and an acronym for Diagnosis, Assessment, Referral, Treatment, and Education, Stage A, which will be completed in April 2001, will include a complex that will house a laboratory, radiology facility, twelve consultation rooms, an education center, nutrition center, pharmacy, blood bank, physical therapy center, and program offices. Stages 2-B and -C will include operating rooms, observation beds, and an emergency department.

Environmental Cooperation
Drs. Jones and Chong feel integrating environmental responsibility into the planning of the hospital design and educating the community about natural resources is essential. Thanks to a grant funded by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in Canada (CEC) and the North American Fund for Environmental Cooperation (NAFEC), the completed project will also be an environmental model for the border region.

The Future
As amazing as this progress is, it is only a step along the way in the dreams of Dr. Jones and Dr. Chong. Both exude endless energy and optimism and are undaunted by the huge task that lies ahead-the future establishment of a complete pediatric medical facility and an eighty-two-bed pediatric hospital, which will adjoin the present facility. When they first dreamed about the project over ten years ago, friends and colleagues told them that establishing the present clinic would be impossible. But this impossibility became tangibly real when more than 400 guests and distinguished visitors attended the June 2000 groundbreaking ceremony for the first expansion stage, building a symbolic wall of bricks to indicate the beginning of construction.

Although Drs. Jones and Chong look to the future for the completion of the project, Hospital Infantíl de las Californias, they can count up their many achievements so far. In the past six years, 120 of the finest pediatric specialists from both sides of the border have provided more than 50,000 patient examinations in thirty-nine specialties, and nearly 900 surgeries. Their community outreach program covers poverty-stricken communities where about 80 percent of the population is under thirty years of age. The program has benefited more than 14,000 people annually over the past three years. Medical professionals, family members of patients, and other community volunteers have donated more than 97,500 hours of time. Accredited educational programs for medical professionals and students have exposed large numbers of participants to not only multicultural experience but community medicine practices that will benefit them in their future medical careers. In addition, this group of professionals supervised the production of the region's first pediatric medical journal. Local, ongoing radio and television programs featuring the hospital's staff and medical doctors assist in promoting healthcare issues-with an estimated financial benefit to the community of more than $2 million.

After starting ten years ago with only an "impossible" dream, the dynamic duo of Drs. Jones and Chong has inspired hundreds of supporters and professionals to help build and staff a very real, state-of-the-art medical facility, finally providing the healthcare so desperately needed by the more than one million children in the California-Baja California border region.

Dennis Buskirk has been a freelance writer based in San Diego, California, for over thirty years. Pam Torlone, CFRE, has been a professional fundraiser for twenty years in San Diego and is executive director of the Foundation for the Children of the Californias.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.23-24.